Columbia River tribes one step closer to federal government fulfilling housing promise

The U.S. Senate passed a bill Thursday that would provide up to 50 new houses for Columbia River tribal members. Now it’s up to Congress to make it a reality.
The bill calls for between 41 and 49 houses to be built near the Bonneville Dam for tribal members who lived and fished there until the flooding from the dam wiped out their homes and villages starting in 1937. It also directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to figure out how many tribal members were displaced when the John Day Dam was finished in 1971.
The Senate action is the closest tribes have been to a remedy in nearly a half-century. There are now two bills waiting for U.S. House of Representatives approval that could significantly ease a housing crisis for members of the Warm Springs, Yakama, Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes.
In May, the Senate’s Energy and Water Appropriations bill was also sent to the U.S. House of Representatives. That bill directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to plan a new village for tribal fishing crews who lost their homes when The Dalles Dam was built in the 1950s.
The bills came after The Oregonian/OregonLive’s report on the squalid living conditions for tribal members who live along the river. Hundreds of Native Americans were flooded out of their homes and villages when the Bonneville Dam was built in 1937. Many moved upriver only to have the same thing happen when The Dalles and John Day dams were constructed in the 1950s and ’70s.
There are 31 fishing sites that replaced the villages, but none have houses, and many don’t have adequate drinking water, bathroom facilities or safety infrastructure. Over time, tribal members who still fish for salmon as their ancestors did for the past 10,000 years moved on to the sites, despite the living conditions.
There are at least eight sites where tribal members live year-round, and many more where people live at least six months at a time. However, neither the federal government nor the tribes have accurate counts of how many people were displaced so the total number of houses needed is still in debate.
In November 2013, the Army Corps in Portland acknowledged that the agency was supposed to replace some of the houses that were flooded by Bonneville and The Dalles dams, but still has not. There has not yet been a thorough study of how many people were displaced by the construction of the John Day Dam.
After The Oregonian/OregonLive’s investigation, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, visited some of the 31 tribal sites and vowed to make headway on providing houses this year. Thursday’s legislation is part of that effort.
Merkley included the directive for housing at Bonneville and John Day in the Water Resources Development Act, which sets priorities for the Army Corps and includes a long list of projects. It is one of five pieces of legislation:
– Two identical Energy and Water Appropriations bills, one introduced in the House of Representatives by Blumenauer and one introduced in the U.S. Senateco-sponsored by Merkley and Washington Sen. Patty Murray, call for the Army Corps to start planning for a new village near The Dalles Dam. Both are now in the House.
– The Water Resources Development Act, again sponsored by Merkley, would command the Army Corps to build nearly 50 houses at the Bonneville Dam and study how many are owed to tribal members displaced by the John Day Dam.
– A standalone bill would provide funding for maintenance and safety measures at the sites, including installing wells for drinking water and fire hydrants.
– The Senate appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of Interior includes a provision for better sanitation and increased law enforcement at the sites.
Oregon and Washington legislators support the bills, but Merkley has taken the lead in the Senate. Thursday’s bill passed 94-3. The money for the project would be appropriated after the Army Corps consults with the tribes on what kind of housing is needed.
“It’s totally unacceptable that decades after the federal government’s dams wiped out our tribes’ communities and fishing sites with thousands of years of history, we still have not honored our obligations to tribal members along the Columbia River,” Merkley said Thursday. “We need to keep our promises for relocation and housing for the communities that were displaced. I’ll keep pushing to get these provisions to the President’s desk and signed into law.”
Getting the bills signed into law faces a steep obstacle in the House. None of the bills addressing the housing crisis have moved there, and there is no estimate on when future action might happen.
“The House is a little chaotic right now, but I’ve talked to colleagues on both sides of the aisle who support this proposal. We’ve got great allies, and I’m going to continue to work to advance this effort as the House hopefully moves forward with the Water Resources Development Act and we work out the final bill with the Senate,” Blumenauer said Thursday. “We can and should get this done.”
The legislation has friends outside Congress.  Paul Lumley, director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which operates and maintains the sites for people who live there, spoke before a Senate committee Wednesday in favor of one of the bills. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is the custodian of the fishing sites, are working with the tribes and Army Corps on solutions to the housing crisis.
“We’re delighted by today’s passage by the Senate of the Water Resources Development Act,” Lumley said. “The inclusion of homes for tribal members displaced by the construction of The Dalles Dam is a primary piece of this legislation and an important step in correcting this historic wrong. Our hope is that similar action will be made by the House of Representatives. Only then, can the region take the necessary actions for moving forward.”