New tribal village on Columbia River included in federal appropriations bill

Northwest senators took the first step Thursday to fulfilling the promises made to Columbia River fishing tribes in the 1930s.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, added language into an appropriations bill that allows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start planning a new tribal village at The Dalles Dam. The Army Corps recognized in 2013 that the agency never replaced the homes for at least hundreds of Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribal members who lived along the Columbia River after The Dalles, Bonneville and John Day dams were built.

Last month, The Oregonian/Oregonlive exposed the decrepit conditions at 31 fishing sites where tribal members now live to continue catching salmon — a 10,000-year-old practice that hold economic, social and spiritual importance to the four tribes. Fishing crews now live without electricity or access to sufficient clean water, and deal with rampant fire, safety and health hazards.

“This represents the first concrete action to address the responsibility of the United States for replacing the tribal villages that were flooded, since the construction of Celilo,” Merkley said.

The tribes, speaking through the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, are glad that the federal government is finally moving on the problem.

“The time has come to right this historic wrong,” said Paul Lumley, executive director for the fish commission.

They want the Army Corps to start talking with the four tribes and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs immediately to plan a new village. To do this, first, the senators point to the Army Corps’ own words written at the time of the The Dalles Dam construction. Corps officials said they have the ability to build a new tribal village to replace ones that were flooded. This likely paved the way for Celilo at the time.

The appropriations bill reminds the Corps that the agency of this, and says that the money already in the operations and maintenance budget can be used to plan a new village.

The bill passed the Senate Appropriations Committee without resistance, but still needs to be approved by the full Senate and then head to the House of Representatives for the same treatment. There, the bill has a friend in Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a vocal supporter of new housing for the tribes.

Oregon and Washington legislators have pledged to make good on the federal government’s obligation to replace what was lost when the dams were built and flooded the traditional villages on the Columbia River’s shores.

The only restitution in more than 80 years since has been to provide 15 houses at Celilo Indian Village, outside of the town of The Dalles.

“I believe it is critical for there to be safe, reliable housing along the Columbia River so treaty tribes can exercise their protected rights,” Murray said in a statement. “That’s why I am fighting alongside my colleagues in Congress to tell the story of this need. Salmon fishing is an integral part of the Native American legacy, and this is an important step to honoring those histories.”

However, it is one village. 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. The estimated need for houses varies between federal agencies and the tribes’ memories. But, the number is much higher than will likely be provided in one village.

Merkley said he plans to use the Water Development Resources Act, which sets Army Corps priorities, for more comprehensive planning at the rest of the sites. However, that is not currently being reauthorized, so he is using the appropriations process in the meantime for a start.

“This represents seizing the first available opportunity to take action,” Merkley said. “After seeing firsthand the living conditions at these sites, I am even more committed to righting this wrong for tribal members. No one should have to live in these conditions and it’s past time this debt was repaid.”