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Celilo Village gets improved housing, infrastructure

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By Eric Mortenson -- The Oregonian

CELILO VILLAGE, Ore. (AP) - Searing heat bakes the brown hills that rise up along both sides of the Columbia River, but the air conditioning inside the government-issue doublewide works perfectly.

Village Chief Olsen Meanus Jr., shirtless and sweating from a day spent lugging box springs and dressers, sits for a moment as his children explore the white-on-white interior of their temporary home.

It's a better environment for the kids, Meanus muses. And all the recent village improvements - the new longhouse, the new water and sewer systems, now the new houses - all of that work honors the elders who have preserved the heritage of this ancient gathering place for Northwest tribes, he said.

The Meanus family and about 50 other village residents have started moving into modular homes provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The families will live there for the next nine months while contractors build 14 homes and the first paved streets and sidewalks the village has seen.

The village's existing residences will be torn down - many are decrepit shacks or trailers afflicted with lead paint and substandard plumbing and wiring.

The new homes will be two-, three-, or four-bedroom houses ranging from about 1,400 to 1,800 square feet, said George Miller, the corps' project manager. The housing will be owned by the BIA, which will issue residency permits. Village residents will live there free, taking on some responsibility for maintenance.

For most residents, even the temporary modular homes are a dramatic step up. Each has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and comes with washer, dryer and air conditioning in addition to the usual stove and fridge. A half-dozen homes are handicap-accessible.

Even so, Meanus will miss his old home.

''It's the only house I've ever lived in,'' he says ruefully. ''I have a lot of memories in that house.''

Such is the hold Celilo Village has on American Indians. Despite decades of poverty, neglect and broken promises, despite being cut off from reservation services and dealing with sketchy sewer, water and electrical service, even good change is unsettling.

But change is coming and fast. The work is part of a $67 million project that essentially represents an admission by the government that it did not abide by a series of agreements, beginning with an 1855 treaty that promised Northwest tribes access to ''usual and accustomed'' fishing sites.

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Celilo, seven miles upstream from The Dalles, was a fishing, trade and cultural center for Pacific Northwest tribes for an estimated 10,000 years. American Indians, perched on planks or platforms, netted migrating salmon as they milled and leaped in a series of pools and falls.

Water backed up by completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957 flooded Celilo Falls and forced relocation of the original village. The Bonneville and John Day hydroelectric dams affected other American Indian fishing sites.

To make amends, the corps in the past few years has rebuilt 31 traditional fishing sites along the Columbia, adding access roads, boat ramps or other amenities as needed. At the request of the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama and Nez Perce tribes, the corps added the Celilo Village restoration to the project.

A 2003 corps report, written to authorize the village project, was unusually plainspoken in its assessment of the government's responsibility. The corps contributed to problems at Celilo by providing inadequate housing and infrastructure to residents forced to relocate because of The Dalles Dam, the report said.

The agency's long involvement at Celilo ''sets this site peculiarly apart as a corps responsibility,'' the report said.

''It's hard to think long-term when you don't have decent water, electricity and sewage,'' said Miller, the project manager.

The home and street construction extend a flurry of improvements at Celilo. Contractors built a new village longhouse in 2005, and this spring it hosted a 50-year commemoration of the flooding of Celilo Falls. Since then, workers have drilled a new well, installed a 250,000-gallon water reservoir, built a new sewage lagoon and pump station, and added fire hydrants.

A BIA administrative office and classroom will be built in 2009, Miller said.

The village work has been followed closely by American Indians living on Northwest reservations and elsewhere. An estimated 2,000 people, most of them Native, attended the 50-year commemoration at Celilo.

Amber Schulz, an employee with Cooper Zietz Engineers Inc. of Portland, an American Indian-owned firm, found herself doing technical drawings for the project. Her mother's family has roots in Celilo Village; the late renowned Chief Tommy Thompson was Schulz's great-great-grandfather.

''To rebuild those ties has been very important to me,'' Schulz said. ''There's an innate place people need to go that is home. It's really powerful to reconnect; it's like re-meeting your family.''

The corps' Miller said the work has been particularly rewarding.

''It's a special place,'' he said. ''What I felt was most interesting was that the people never left. They're tied to the river and the resource.''