It has taken nearly 80 years, but the federal government is finally starting to make good on its promises to Columbia River Native fishers whose villages were inundated in the early 1900s to make way for dams.
When the floodgates of the Bonneville system of dams began to open starting in 1937, the Columbia River engulfed tribal fishing sites and villages, flooding ancestral lands. The settlements were replaced by 31 encampments that today are barely habitable.
Now, multiple congressional actions, including appropriations and federal authorizations, are driving a multi-agency coalition to adequately address tribal housing conditions along the Columbia River. Part of the package is legislation, the Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act, which would begin to address sanitation and safety issues in the encampments.
“This legislation begins to undo a shameful legacy of shabby treatment for tribal members who have long deserved better,” said Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, in a statement. “These glaring public health and safety hazards for children and families must be addressed now as an essential part of repairing a sad history of injustice.”
In 1957 the reservoir behind the Dalles Dam inundated the 15,000-year-old, continuously inhabited settlement and tribal fishing sites at thundering Celilo Falls. It destroyed the major cultural and trading center for tribes from the Plains to the Pacific.
Treaties in the 1850s had guaranteed the treaty fishing tribes the rights to their fisheries in exchange for the peaceful cession of most of their territory. During the dam’s construction between the 1930s and 1950s, the federal government promised the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes they would permanently replace their villages and fishing sites.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replaced the flooded white settlements with towns, but somehow it took them 20 years after the first dam drowned Native fishing sites and villages to designate an in-lieu-of temporary fishing spot for tribal fishing. The final 31st in-lieu-of fishing site was designated in 2013, but it didn’t provide any housing for tribal fishers.
The Army Corps issued a report acknowledging that the promises to build houses for displaced tribal members remain unfulfilled, The Oregonian reported in March. Native communities at tribal fishing sites are in a state of disrepair. Tribal fishing families have to live under distressing conditions, most without sanitation or running water. Celilo Village, finally updated beginning in 2006, is the rare exception.
RELATED: Celilo Falls, Gone but Not Forgotten
How it could be: the upgraded Celilo Village, with longhouse.
The legislation proposed by Oregon and Washington members of the U.S. House and Senate would correct that. The first step, said Jeremy Red Star Wolf, chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, must be in providing basic human necessities such as clean water, basic sanitation and fire safety infrastructure for the sites. The bill, introduced in both chambers of Congress, highlights the importance of their near-term need and lays out a path for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to remedy many of these problems now, Red Star Wolf said in a statement.
“We appreciate the delegation’s commitment and their multifaceted approach to addressing the problems and continuing to do so into the future,” Red Star Wolf said.
The legislation calls upon the BIA to assess the current sanitation and safety conditions at the BIA-owned facilities that were constructed to provide treaty tribes access to traditional fishing grounds. The bill also recommends expenditures as necessary for actions that would improve sanitation and other infrastructure such as water and sewer for the sites.
“It is long past time that we honored our commitment to tribal members along the Columbia River, and this legislation is another step in the right direction,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, in a statement. “Tribal members shouldn’t have to live in unsafe or unsanitary conditions without running water or electricity. This bill will help make much needed improvements at the 31 tribal fishing sites along the Columbia River.”
Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, added that it’s critical to have safe, reliable housing along the Columbia River so that treaty tribes can exercise their protected rights. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) said it will work with Merkley, Wyden and Murray; Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, and Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Washington; and the Army Corps, the BIA, and the Treaty Tribes to improve conditions at these sites and address tribal fishers’ needs.
“Salmon fishing is an integral part of the Native American legacy, and this legislation aims to make long-overdue improvements to tribal fishing access rights while we work on the longer-term need for additional housing,” Murray said in a statement. “This is an important step toward honoring tribal rights.”
Follow Terri Hansen on Twitter @TerriHansen.