Federal bills would allow Oregon tribes to renegotiate historic hunting and fishing restrictions

For more than 35 years, the Grand Ronde and the Siletz tribes of American Indians have been bound by legal agreements that strip them of the right to manage their own hunting and fishing seasons on tribal land.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, is sponsoring legislation that would give those tribes a chance to renegotiate those agreements with the state and the federal governments.

Senate Bills 3126 and 3123 would make it legal for the tribes to amend the restrictive, permanent agreements that were written into the laws that created their reservations in 1980 for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz and 1986 for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

The tribes were stripped of their land and federal status in 1954 when Congress passed the Western Oregon Termination Act. In the 1980s, the tribes signed agreements with the federal and state governments that restored their federal status and gave them some land on reservations.

But there was a catch: The tribes could only be restored if they agreed to give up their fishing and hunting rights outside of the reservation through a consent decree.

The Siletz and the Grand Ronde are the only tribes that still have these consent decrees in place, and they prevent the tribes from ever updating the agreements so they might one day manage traditional salmon fishing and elk hunting on their own land.

Cheryle Kennedy, Grand Ronde Tribal Council chairwoman, said the bills’ passage would correct an injustice that happened when the tribes were restored.

“The consent decree was thrust upon us and really had us in a stranglehold,” she said. “A cultural practice that had been within our people since time immemorial has been restricted and misunderstood. Sometimes I don’t think it’s really misunderstood. It’s just that, that was the will of the ones who were in power at the time.”

Kennedy remembers the hostile meetings with Oregon fish and wildlife managers in the 1980s before her tribe agreed to give up its rights. She was also on the tribal council back then.

“It was horrible,” she said. “They’re pushing and pushing us to sign a consent decree. There were meetings that were held that were deafening when you walked into the room because there was so much yelling and screaming at us.”

The state of Oregon wouldn’t agree to the federal restoration of the tribe unless the tribe signed a consent decree waiving its hunting and fishing rights, Kennedy said.

“A lot of hunting and fishing organizations in Oregon believed that if we had our hunting and fishing rights that we would be taking away from them,” she said. “So, agreements had to be made before the state of Oregon would concur with the restoration.”

The Grand Ronde people agreed to give up their rights, “but it was a sorrowful agreement,” Kennedy said. “We lived off the land, so to not have hunting and fishing rights was a hardship.”

Kennedy said she is hoping her tribes will be able to renegotiate their agreement with the state of Oregon so the tribal government can manage its own hunting and fishing seasons on about 12,000 acres that the tribe now owns.

“I think the reasonable person when you hear it thinks, ‘My gosh, why, that seems like an easy fix. Why can’t it just happen?” she said. “Well, yeah. We think that, too.”

In a statement, Merkley said his bills are needed to restore traditional hunting and fishing rights for the tribes because the consent decree restrictions are written into federal law

“It is a historic travesty and injustice that the Siletz and Grand Ronde were forced to give up their traditional hunting and fishing rights as the price to restore their reservations,” Merkley said. “This injustice is now enshrined in federal law, and it’s long past time to get it out so that the Siletz and Grand Ronde can finally exercise their traditional hunting and fishing rights.”