WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs today gave bipartisan support to the Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act, passing the bill out of committee on a voice vote. The legislation, which is sponsored by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), would enable the Bureau of Indian Affairs to make important safety and sanitation improvements at the tribal treaty fishing access sites along the Columbia River, which are on lands held by the United States for the benefit of the four Columbia River Treaty tribes.
“Visiting the Lone Pine site, I personally witnessed conditions that were shocking—both unjust and unsafe,” Merkley said. “We must work urgently to right this wrong. As we strive to fulfill the federal government’s unmet housing and relocation obligations to Columbia River tribes, it’s essential that we move quickly to improve conditions at existing sites. Passing this bill out of committee with bipartisan support is a critical step, and I will keep pushing to get it to the floor of the Senate and signed into law. No one should have to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions like these.”
“It’s so important we keep working to honor treaties signed with Columbia River Treaty Tribes and address the highly unsafe and unsanitary conditions at many treaty fishing access sites along the Columbia River,” said Murray. “Today’s news that the bill has passed out of committee with bipartisan support is another step toward ensuring the four treaty tribes can exercise their protected rights such as salmon fishing and accessing safe housing along the river.”
“It’s long past time to correct this injustice for tribal families who, for decades, have endured dangerous housing conditions and increasingly deteriorating fishing sites,” Wyden said. “Improving conditions for tribal members to continue their traditional way of life on their own terms is a critical step toward a new chapter of equitable treatment for tribes.”
Beginning in the 1930s, the construction of the three lower Columbia River dams displaced members of the four Columbia River Treaty tribes: Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Nez Perce Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. These tribes have a treaty-protected right to fish along the Columbia River in their usual and accustomed places.
The Senators have been fighting to address the urgent need for adequate housing and infrastructure at tribal fishing access sites constructed by the Army Corps following construction of The Dalles, Bonneville, and John Day dams. The Army Corps designed the sites to be used primarily for daily, in-season fishing access and temporary camping; however, in many cases tribal members now use the areas as longer-term or even permanent residences. In fact, many people at these sites are living in extremely distressed, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs has not committed the resources necessary to ensure the basic necessities of clean and safe living conditions at these sites.
The Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act would address the urgent need for improved conditions by:
· Calling on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to conduct a much-needed assessment of current safety and sanitation conditions at the sites, in coordination with the affected Columbia River Treaty Tribes; and
· Authorizing the Bureau to work on improving sanitation and safety conditions in several key areas such as structural improvements (restrooms, washrooms, and other buildings), safety improvements (wells and infrastructure to address fire concerns, and more), electrical infrastructure to ensure safe electrical hookups, and basic sewer and septic infrastructure.
The legislation is supported by the four Columbia River Treaty tribes—Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Nez Perce Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation—as well as the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
“The passage of the Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is another step forward to remedy the depressed conditions found at tribal fishing sites along the Columbia River,” said Leland Bill, Chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “The legislation will bring needed priority and resources to the fishing sites and in turn the lives of tribal members who come to the Columbia River to exercise their treaty fishing rights. We appreciate the Delegation’s commitment improving the health and safety at these sites and look forward to working with them on these issues.”
“This legislation will improve the infrastructure for Indian treaty fishing on the Columbia River. Exercise of those rights sustains the lives and culture of the Warm Springs people,” said Austin Green, Jr., Chairman, Tribal Council, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
“We are pleased this legislation is moving through the legislative process swiftly and is one step closer to fulfilling our treaty rights for fishing on the Columbia River,” said Board of Trustees Chair Gary Burke, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
“The Nez Perce Tribe is pleased that this legislation which will benefit our members and those of other treaty tribes has been introduced and considered early in the new Congress,” said Nez Perce Chairman Mary Jane Miles. “We are grateful for the leadership of Senator Merkley and others from the Northwest congressional delegation.”
Relative to this legislation, Delano Saluskin, the Vice Chairman of Yakama Nation Tribal Council, recalled the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black who, in commenting on a case involving the Tuscarora Tribe, wrote, “Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.” Saluskin said, “When the Federal government built the dams of the lower Columbia River they promised the Indian people whose treaty fishing sites were inundated that new access would be established. That promise was made in 1939 and was only nominally adhered to until 1988 when former Senator Dan Evans of Washington State secured passage of Title IV of PL 100-581, entitled Columbia River Treaty Fishing Access Sites. Today’s legislation is the next step in keeping the promise of fishing access on the Columbia River originally made to our people and we greatly appreciate Senators Merkley, Wyden, Cantwell and Murray for their leadership on this matter.”