Planning for Columbia River tribal village stalls after funding denied by White House

Tribal members who live along the Columbia River were cautiously optimistic that the federal government was making good on one of its promises, 80 years late. But a new White House decision has again left hundreds of Native Americans in unsafe, unsanitary makeshift housing for the foreseeable future.

The Office of Management and Budget has decided not to grant a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers request for almost $1.6 million to finish planning a village for tribal members near The Dalles. Those people or their ancestors were displaced when the federal government erected a series of Columbia River Dams that flooded their riverside villages.

Members of Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes lived along the river for centuries and lost their homes as well as their center of social and economic life when the Army Corps built three dams: Bonneville, then the Dalles and finally John Day.

Since then, many Native Americans have lived at least six months out of the year on 30 fishing sites not made for full-time human habitation. The Oregonian/OregonLive reported in 2016 that the federal government recognized it has an obligation to provide replacement housing.

The subsequent decision to withhold the money “is an outrageous, unjust decision by the Trump White House,” said Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. “We have a long overdue obligation to Columbia River treaty tribes, and the Trump administration can’t just decide that they don’t want to meet it. Anyone from the Trump team who thinks it’s OK for tribal members to keep living in these conditions should spend a month living with limited access to restrooms and utilities, and then see how they feel.”

Merkley said he will request a meeting with Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney as soon as possible to impress on him the importance of fulfilling the historic promise.

The Office of Management and Budget notified Northwest legislators of the decision on a routine planning call. Several legislators said it was a shock to not to have been given any heads up.

The Army Corps had planned to move $1.6 million from a fund that maintains the Lower Columbia basin to pay for The Dalles village planning. Merkley said corps officials said the Lower Columbia had a surplus of funds.

But the federal budget office plans to keep the money in the Lower Columbia project’s pot anyway, Merkley said.

Tribes say they lack advocates in the White House, especially with so many positions left unfilled. Native Americans in the Northwest saw Trump’s original proposed budget that slashed projects in Indian Country as a signal that his administration might present obstacles.

But Merkley and other senators said they saw broad bipartisan support and momentum to address tribal housing needs until this decision.

Former Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy allocated about $3 million in fiscal year 2017to start planning a village at The Dalles Dam, but only half the money was immediately available under a continuing resolution that set budget priorities.

With that money, the Army Corps started conversations with tribal members and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission about what they want from a village, conducted cultural surveys and reports, took soil samples and did other testing.

The bulk of the work remains, though. In a letter from Kevin Brice, the deputy district engineer for project management, he says that Army Corps staff won’t be able to draw designs for the village, evaluate various sites for their feasibility and socioeconomic impacts or identify the best one without the rest of the funds.

“Except for limited coordination with the tribes and Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Corps will cease in-house work on the village development plan until additional funds are made available,” Brice said in the letter.

He also noted that two contracted agencies were told to stop work until the $1.6 million comes through.

The resolution ran out in April, and the Army Corps requested that money be moved from the lower Columbia section of the budget to finish the village planning work. Mulvaney, Trump’s federal budget director, refused that request last week, according to a letter from Washington and Oregon senators. He said that the Army Corps has too many projects going and shouldn’t be spending time on housing issues.

The Army Corps built North Bonneville, a town intended mostly for white people whose originally community was also washed out by the expansion of Bonneville Dam. It also provided new housing for people in the path of the John Day Dam.

Ten years ago, Native Americans received the first 15 houses owed them by the federal government at Celilo Village. At least 85 more are owed, according to the Army Corps.

Modern-day Celilo Village has 15 houses with good insulation and garages big enough for fishing gear. But it took 50 years and several iterations.

Lawmakers from Washington and Oregon hope to convince the White House that the federal government has an obligation to build the village.

“This is a shame. It’s been nearly 60 years of broken promises, and the tribes are still waiting,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland. “The administration’s reasoning in denying these funds flies in the face of common sense, and ignores obligations that everyone acknowledges are due. The federal government should reverse this decision.”

The Army Corps also has direction to build a village at Bonneville Dam, but Congress has not yet allocated money for that project.

“We have seen first-hand the cramped, outdated, makeshift housing with limited access to reliable utilities and restrooms that tribal members are living in today,” said a letter sent by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Ron Wyden and Merkley plus Blumenauer. “This is a matter of public health and safety, upholding treaty rights, and requires immediate attention.”

Murray, from Washington, said she and the rest of the Northwest delegation worked closely with the tribes and Army Corps for the past several years since The Oregonian/OregonLive wrote about the state of housing along the river. In a statement, she said, good progress had been made in the past year.

“It was a complete shock when the Trump Administration pulled the rug out from under this project last week,” Murray said. She said she finds the federal budget office’s rationale “unacceptable, and I plan to push back as hard as I can to get this project back on track and fulfill our long-standing responsibility to the tribes.”

Charles Hudson, legislative director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said he plans to keep pushing the White House to prioritize tribal housing.

“Folks have been waiting,” Hudson said. “It’s just an outrage and shame to ask them to wait longer, but clearly they persevere and we’ll just have to ask the river people to bear down and wait and work with us a little bit longer.”

Life in the fishing camps is tough in the summer, but gets harder as the temperatures drop and wind picks up on the banks of the Columbia. Many people live in decrepit trailers or tents and must walk outside to use the restroom in facilities that are meant for fewer people than live on the sites.

“These are not only legal obligations, but moral and ethical obligations to fill,” Hudson said. “And we will all be working to impress those points on the Trump administration.”