Oregon senator holds town hall on reservation

Confederated Umatilla Journal

MISSION – Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) leaders and community members told Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley about their priorities and concerns during a Sunday town hall May 19.

The CTUIR hosted the event for Merkley, who plays a key role in allocating federal dollars for Indian Country in the Senate, at the Nixyaawíí Governance Center as part of an annual town hall tour where he meets with constituents in each of Oregon’s 36 counties.

Merkley took questions on concerns – which ranged from groundwater contaminated by high levels of nitrates in the region to missing and murdered Indigenous people – from about a dozen of the approximately 60 attendees, which included tribal members and non-Native community members from the area, after spending the morning meeting with CTUIR tribal leaders, local government and civic leaders from the surrounding community.

“I hold a Town Hall for every Oregon county every year because there is simply no substitute to hearing directly from folks about the ideas and priorities that matter most to them and their communities,” Merkley said in a CTUIR press release following the event.

During conversations with tribal leaders, the senator addressed issues like ongoing Umatilla Basin water rights settlement negotiations, a recent agreement with the federal government aimed at restoring salmon run levels in the Columbia River Basin and the CTUIR’s ongoing pursuit of access at Willamette Falls, according to the press release and separate interview between Merkley and the Confederated Umatilla Journal.

“There’s a long list of issues the tribe’s working on,” he said during the interview.

Another topic the two sides discussed was the Army Corps of Engineer’s pledge to build tribal fishing villages along the Columbia River and what Merkley can do to speed up the process, Merkley told the CUJ.

The Army Corps of Engineers are working to find sites and develop plans for villages to replace tribal villages flooded with the construction of dams on the Columbia River.But the pace the federal agency has worked to identify appropriate sites has frustrated tribal leaders.

Merkley said it’s taken too long, more than 75 years, for the federal government to fulfill a promise to replace the villages destroyed by the dams, adding that he would be pushing the Army Corps of Engineers to identify and acquire sites for the villages more quickly.

He also said he would continue to include language in legislative proposals to ensure the initiative remains funded and authorized. Merkley added he would also try to knock down other hurdles to the project, like the need for potential land transfers or extensive infrastructure development as they arise, before the window of opportunity closes.

“If we don’t find and secure a site, we will never get there,” Merkley said. “I want to see those [villages] constructed.”

He also committed to supporting the CTUIR as it works to wrap up Umatilla Basin water rights settlement negotiations with land owners, state and local officials.

A final settlement between stakeholders would require federal legislation to implement the agreement, which he said he would be “happy to champion.”

“So, my team’s been standing by to be helpful when that time arrives,” Merkley said.

Tribal leaders also brought up a plan developed by the CTUIR and other Columbia River Tribes to aid depleted salmon populations in the basin while also coming up with solutions to meet the region’s future energy, shipping, agricultural and other needs.

The federal government has promised to spend more than $1 billion in the next decade to support the effort. Last December, it adopted the plan – The Resilient Columbia Basin Agreement — and agreed to partner with the tribes and states of Oregon and Washington in implementing it.

Merkley has supported the plan, which many say sets the stage for the elimination of dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers.

While he said he didn’t yet have a position on whether to breach the dams, he said he agreed with tribes and scientists who say salmon runs on the Snake River will disappear without changes to the current situation.

But first, questions – like how to how to replace energy produced by the basin’s hydropower system and how to affordably and efficiently ship goods and wheat currently transported by a river barging system that would be lost – need to be answered before the future of the dams can be addressed.

“Many issues would have to be resolved,” Merkley said. “So I fully support the research going into what’s possible.”

Facing the public

Most of the questions during the town hall portion of Sunday’s visit involved issues – inflation, a lack of affordable housing and increasing partisan divides in Congress, that affect the whole region and not just the CTUIR.

But he also answered a few questions posed by several members of the CTUIR Youth Leadership Council concerning issues important to the CTUIR, especially its younger generations.

Saying she had witnessed friends who struggled with mental health challenges, Luka Worden asked how Merkley could help provide better access to care. Abigayle and Lisa Faye McIntosh wanted to know what the federal government was doing to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people and support their families.

Merkley responded by saying that the federal government has been working to expand youth access to prevention hotlines. He said there was a need for more mental health workers in tribal communities –workers who are from those communities that can better relate to, and understand, the challenges the younger generations are encountering.

He then listed some new federal initiatives, like increased funding to law enforcement agencies for MMIP cases, adding that continued awareness of the problem led by Indigenous people was vital to keeping pressure on policy makers to contribute to solutions.

 “So, thank you all for being advocates and raising these issues today,” he told the McIntosh sisters.

Sun Hawk Thomas, a graduating senior at Pendleton High School, pushed Merkley on what is being done to address water issues. Merkley mentioned CTUIR initiatives he supports, like the Umatilla Basin water rights settlement and the tribe’s work in the Columbia River Basin to prevent salmon extinctions– adding that addressing water concerns is complicated given the many different types of stakeholders who rely on water for different reasons. 

“There’s a phrase I heard growing up in Douglas County that I never really understood … ‘Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting,’” he said. “What did they mean? Well, how important water is to everything we do and therefore requires a lot of collaboration and consultation.”

Merkley is a member of the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations, which controls how much of where the federal government’s money is spent. He also serves as the Chairman of an appropriations subcommittee that is responsible for allocating federal funds to agencies, like the Bureau of Indian affairs, that have major impacts to the country’s tribal nations.

In his interview with the CUJ, Merkley said his role in dishing out federal funding to Indian Country means he tries to meet individually with Oregon’s tribes during his statewide tours. He listed several tribal priorities – like replacing an aging drinking water system on the Warm Springs Reservation and spearheading legislation that established natural co-management rights with tribes  that he’s helped tackle at the federal level.

“I’ve really taken the initiative to help the tribes in a number of issues,” he said. “I have a lot of projects going with the tribes.”

Board of Trustees Chairman Gary I. Burke thanked Merkley for coming to the Umatilla Indian Reservation and meeting with tribal leaders to discuss CTUIR priorities he can help address.

“We are glad that our doors are open for him to conduct his business with the public here today, and we hope that his doors will always be open to us as we strengthen our relationship,” Burke said.