Oregon legislators make new promise to Columbia River tribes — action on houses this year

Sen. Jeff Merkley leaned over the armrest of the white SUV he drove east on Interstate 84, recounting the story of how the Columbia Gorge was formed.

Fifteen thousand years ago, cataclysmic floods broke the banks of the river, washing them downstream. Every year since, salmon make their way upstream to spawn. For at least 10,000 years, four tribes lived off them.

Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer were on their way to Lone Pine, where about 40 members of the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes live without ready access to electricity, despite being in the shadow of The Dalles dam.

Earlier this month, The Oregonian/Oregonlive detailed how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still haven’t fulfilled promises to provide housing for tribal members more than 80 years after flooding their traditional villages to create three Columbia River dams. Many sites are unsafe, unclean and lack facilities for year-round living. Yet the tribes try to fish and live there, as they have for thousands of years.

“We were both thinking about the power of the mighty salmon that were able to attack and defeat the falls,” Blumenauer said. “We’ve got to be like these salmon at Celilo and not give up until these promises are fulfilled.”

The Oregon legislators are the first to tell the tribes they plan to find money to fulfill the promises the federal government made when the dams were built. 

“I was unaware of the dimension of the villages until the story that has been shared this last year. What better time than now to tackle this,” Merkley said.

The occasion was significant for the tribes, with one chief saying a sitting U.S. senator hasnâ??t visited the fishing sites since the 1980s. 

About 30 tribal chiefs, officials and members greeted the legislators at Lone Pine, and even more gathered at Celilo Village — the one place 15 houses were provided for displaced tribal families. They shared stories about Celilo Falls, the fishing communities their relatives belonged to and how deeply they felt the loss of their ancient fishing grounds.

“??There’s a lot more significance to what’s been done here than the infrastructure –?? just having a house over your head,” said JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, saying that salmon are part of the four tribes’?? origins. “Those things go hand-in-hand with who we are as people.”

Merkley and Blumenauer pledged to push for a number of measures to improve the living conditions of the tribes along the river. In the short term, those include more money for operations and maintenance at the 31 sites. Money set aside by the Corps to help pay for maintenance of the encampments will likely be depleted nearly 30 years ahead of schedule, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which manages the sites for the federal government.

Blumenauer said he also plans to insert language in the 2016 Water Resources Development Act, which prioritizes funding for the Army Corps, to start building the houses the tribal fishing families were promised but never received. While many federal agencies are underfunded, he said, the money is there. Perhaps even a small fraction of the money made from the dams’ hydroelectric power could be put toward tribal housing.

“It’s not like it’s beyond our capacity,” he said.

Both told the tribes this will be a long haul, though.

“I think both of us will be deeply engaged, not just this year, but for years to come,” Merkley said.