Three Oregon Tribes Are Locked in a Dispute Over Fishing at Willamette Falls. It’s About Much More Than a Few Salmon.

The request has prompted more than two years of intertribal conflict now involving two state agencies and Gov. Kate Brown’s office.

Willamette Falls in Oregon City. (Christine Dong)

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde want something that sounds simple. They're seeking to erect a fishing platform on state land at Willamette Falls that would allow tribal members to harvest a total of 15 salmon a year.

That's a sliver of the 73,000 salmon and steelhead that journey 26 miles each year from the Columbia River to the falls at Oregon City.

To those unfamiliar with the complex history of Oregon's Indian country, the request from the state's largest tribe might seem innocuous. To the Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes, however, the idea is anything but.

The Grand Ronde's request has prompted more than two years of intertribal conflict now involving two state agencies and Gov. Kate Brown's office. The dispute thrust the state into the awkward position of mediating among three sovereign tribal governments—and the decision officials handed down last week left two of those tribes feeling as if they'd been swatted away like nuisances despite their sovereign status.

"The Warm Springs Tribes are extremely disappointed by the conduct of the state," wrote the tribe's attorney, John Ogan, "for their inexplicable departure from government-to-government consultation procedures."

The dispute over Willamette Falls, one of the state's iconic hydrological features, is about much more than a few fish. Currently, although several tribes claim historical legal rights in the Portland metro area—and harvest lamprey at Willamette Falls—none of those claims is anchored to a physical structure.

If the Grand Ronde erect the 100-square-foot fishing platform at the historically significant Indian site, rivals fear they could use it as leverage in the future.

"We believe they are trying to get the state to confer a right on them institutionally—not just let individuals fish," says Chuck Sams, a spokesman for the Umatilla tribe. "It might be that by establishing rights on the river, they can argue for economic development in the Portland metropolitan area."

The Warm Springs share that concern.

"Every time they gain back some sort of recognition—like getting permission from the state for this platform—it creates a reality that they have certain rights," says Louie Pitt, Warm Springs' director of government relations. "They have a bigger agenda and a sizable war chest."

The backdrop for the dispute is grinding poverty on Oregon reservations, a competitive gambling market, and pressure on the tribal compact that limits the state's nine federally recognized tribes to one on-reservation casino each.
That compact means that all Oregon tribes are locked out of the Portland gambling market, even as Washington's Cowlitz tribe prepares to expand its new Ilani casino, located in Ridgefield, just 25 miles north of Portland.

"They are very much into expanding their revenue base," Pitt says of the Grand Ronde. "Could that involve someday developing a casino in the metro area? Sure."

Salmon jumping at Willamette Falls, June 24, 1950. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Native tribes fished at Willamette Falls for centuries before white settlers began taking their land. The big land grab in Oregon, documents show, took place in 1855, when the federal government created most of the state's current tribal reservations. The tribes collectively surrendered millions of acres of prime land, including fishing and hunting rights, in exchange for not being slaughtered.

Cheryle Kennedy, chairwoman of the Grand Ronde, says her tribe's desire to build a platform at Willamette Falls has nothing to do with economic development or casinos. Rather, her tribe merely wants to re-establish its historical cultural traditions. "Villages at Willamette Falls have been part of our people for thousands of years," Kennedy says.

In 2016, records show, the Grand Ronde, the state's largest tribe by enrollment—and its richest, thanks to its Spirit Mountain casino—approached the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, requesting a permit to catch up to 15 salmonids (salmon plus steelhead, which are actually large trout). ODFW said yes.

Later that year, the tribe asked the Department of State Lands for permission to erect a fishing platform at Willamette Falls, citing safety concerns: Tribal members were fishing from rocks where the entire volume of the Willamette River plunges 40 feet to rocky whirlpools below.

Grand Ronde representatives say they wanted to restore cultural traditions that were lost, beginning when the feds pushed them onto a 60,000-acre reservation in Polk and Yamhill counties in 1855. They say they have the most legitimate legal claim to fish at Willamette Falls because their constituent tribes occupied villages there for centuries. (The Warm Springs and the Umatilla tribes vehemently disagree.)

"Fishing at the falls was one of our greatest gifts," Kennedy says.

After catching 15 fish from the falls' banks in 2016, the Grand Ronde hired drone operators, geotechnical engineers, and contractors to site a fishing platform.

They then turned from ODFW to the Department of State Lands, which owns the bottoms and banks of all navigable Oregon rivers up to the high-water line.

The request to establish a concrete and metal structure at the falls escalated the other tribes' opposition.

Both tribes submitted formal objections to the Department of State Lands, arguing the Grand Ronde were misrepresenting their historical rights to Willamette Falls and that the underlying legal issues were federal and beyond the scope of Oregon state agencies.

Umatilla spokesman Sams says the Grand Ronde are trying to use an inapt state permitting process to override long-settled federal law.

Sams says if Grand Ronde members really just wanted to catch 15 fish annually, they could do so with individual licenses, rather than seeking a state permit. He says the tribe's attempt to assert legal claims to Willamette Falls depend on a "false narrative."

"The construction of a [fishing] scaffold is not about a small structure," Sams says. "This effort is an expansion of Grand Ronde's influence."

(Lisa Eriksson, Karen Inthinavong)

Last month, Warm Springs and Umatilla representatives traveled to Salem to plead their cases with DSL, the governor's office and lawyers from the Oregon Department of Justice.

Ogan, the Warm Springs attorney, warned DSL director Vicki Walker that allowing the Grand Ronde's fishing platform would "infringe on the federally protected treaty rights of the Warm Springs Tribes at Willamette Falls."
Despite the opposition, Walker granted the permit earlier this month.

Kennedy celebrates that decision. She says being able to fish safely at Willamette Falls is part of a decadeslong effort to regain some of what was taken from the Grand Ronde, first by the treaty in 1855 and the later termination of recognition by Congress. She says the goal is to re-introduce younger tribal members to historical practices.

"It's to get fish," she says. "It's a traditional culture matter."

The Warm Springs and the Umatilla believe Walker erred. They will formally ask her to reconsider. If she does not, they will pursue litigation.

"It's not over," Sams says.

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