Tensions rise as tribes negotiate Willamette Falls fishing rights

Water Fall

Tribal leaders across the state are engaged in discussions surrounding the hunting, fishing and gathering rights of the tribes on their own land and beyond.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has long managed all hunting, fishing and gathering permits. The rights to manage hunting and fishing on tribal lands and across historical territories were taken from many tribes in Western Oregon after tribes were forced to enter into consent decree agreements to regain federal recognition, giving up the rights in exchange.

Now, many of those tribes are working on agreements with ODFW to regain some of those rights. However, contested areas already maintained, fished and regulated by other tribes have led to contention.

Among the most recent Oregon tribes to reach an agreement with ODFW are The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

They both reached agreements with ODFW earlier this summer and have regained hunting and fishing rights on much of their historic lands.

“Signing this memorandum of understanding is such a huge step. This is who we are. It’s part of our soul, the connection to the land and to our way of life. It’s part of our soul as Native Americans who lived here on this land that we call North America,” said CTGR council chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy.

The agreement between ODFW and Grand Ronde will allow tribal members to harvest finfish, lamprey, shellfish and crustaceans, mammals and birds in the Wilson, Trask, Willamette, Stott Mountain and Santiam wildlife management units. These areas encompass much of the northern Willamette Valley, spanning from the coast to the Cascade peaks. The ODFW agreement with Siletz includes that Trask, Stott Mountain, Alsea and Siuslaw wildlife management areas, which span the Oregon coast region from Tillamook to Coos Bay.

These agreements mean the tribes will handle limits, as well as permitting and regulations, for their tribal members on those lands. Commercial gathering, hunting and fishing is not part of the agreement.

Contentious agreement

While many celebrate the agreements as triumphs in returning rights to Indigenous communities, tribes in Central and Eastern Oregon have raised concerns about the agreements — especially between ODFW and Grand Ronde.

The opposition comes largely from what are known as the Columbia River treaty tribes, which include the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Nez Perce Tribe. They say that the opposition comes largely because of a lack of communication and compromise.

“We’ve never said we think they couldn’t fish or hunt, we just want to have a dialogue with them about the areas they’re proposing,” said CTWS CEO Bobby Brunoe. He says open discussion about what areas are included happened between other tribes, like CTSI, before the agreements were made. He hoped CTGR would do the same. “They would not move from the position they were in. We were hoping they would be able to have a larger discussion, but they didn’t give us the opportunity.”

The largest point of contention in the agreement centers on Willamette Falls in Oregon City. The ODFW agreement with Grand Ronde includes Willamette Falls, an area where Warm Springs has long fished and currently manages lamprey. Brunoe says that this sets a worrisome precedent, limiting the Warm Springs tribes from land they say they have fished for generations past.

“This could have an impact in the future on our ability to fish and hunt our ceded lands,” said Brunoe. “The state has said they don’t think we have rights below Bonneville Dam. We have long fished along the Columbia and Willamette rivers on the main channels and downstream. We have traditional stories and family stories about going down the river, clear down to the mouth. My grandfather had fishing camps all along the area. It doesn’t feel right that we’re not being recognized and we’re being denied those rights.”

Historical context

As many tribes in Western Oregon had their recognition terminated in 1954, they lost all rights to their land. After many years of fighting to become federally recognized, Grand Ronde was restored in 1983. But to do so, they gave up many of their fishing and hunting rights.

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs were not included in the federal laws that removed rights, and their 1855 treaty states “The Tribes and Bands of Middle Oregon executed a treaty with the United States at Wasco, in Oregon Territory, on June 25, 1855, which Treaty set apart the Warm Springs Reservation for our people’s use forever, and reserved the exclusive right to hunt on the reservation and guaranteed to our people the right to hunt on unclaimed land in common with the citizens of the United States.”

Both agreements between CTGR, CTWS and the federal government are vague in what specific land is included, both citing simply “historical lands.” That phrase is what has led to much of the contention here, and in past agreements between tribes and the state.

For CTWS, this historical context is much of the reason for pushback. CTGR voiced strong opposition when CTWS wanted to build a casino in Cascade Locks. That project was terminated, largely due to advocacy from Grand Ronde and other tribes against it.

That project’s lack of success, along with past issues working on compromise with Grand Ronde, have only aggravated today’s contention.

“We regret that ODFW has been drawn into what we have come to believe is an orchestrated campaign by CTGR to aggrandize its sovereignty at expense of other Indian tribes, including us,” said CTWS council chairman Jonathan W. Smith Sr. in a letter to ODFW opposing the agreement.

He listed nine instances where he claimed CTGR worked against other tribes or were been cooperative in projects. “The foregoing list is not exhaustive. We also do not offer it for any purpose other than to be sure that ODFW is aware of CTGR’s broad and continuous efforts to geographically expand its sovereign reach in a manner that is not supported by history and, more importantly, in a manner that is causing direct harm to other tribes, including CTWS,” Smith Sr. wrote. “ODFW should resist CTGR’s well-funded efforts to enlist it as an accomplice in that effort.”

Both tribes hold that Willamette Falls is a place of historical significance for fishing, and both tribes today bring youth to the falls to fish and collect lamprey — Warm Springs youth under their treaty with the state, and Grand Ronde youth with standard ODFW permits.

The agreement signed

Despite the opposition and contention surrounding the agreement, ODFW signed it into law on Aug. 4.

“The agreement is similar to agreements adopted with four other Tribes in western Oregon and advances the government-to-government relationship between the Tribe and the State of Oregon. Tribal members will be able to participate in subsistence and ceremonial hunting, fishing, shell fishing, and trapping licensed by Grand Ronde, within a limited geographic area, in partnership with ODFW and the Oregon State Police,” said ODFW in a press release.

CTGR tribal council member Kathleen George said, “This historic agreement helps right a dark and unfair chapter in Oregon’s history with the tribes, and we are grateful to the Commission for approving it. We are pleased that it does not affect other tribes, though we are saddened that some tribes in Eastern Oregon testified at the meeting based on misinformation. We look forward to providing for our Tribe and following our traditions of sustainable fish and wildlife management into the future.”

Despite assurances from both ODFW and CTGR that the agreement will not have an affect on other tribes, and does not impact treaty rights, CTWS still voices strong opposition.

“We are very disappointed,” said Smith in a release after the decision. The release added, “the Tribe is still evaluating the Commission’s action. We are concerned that the Commission’s ‘rushed’ decision has the potential to harm the Tribe’s relationship with the State of Oregon in untold ways.”

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