The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde this month withdrew from the Willamette Falls Trust, the nonprofit organization made up of more than a dozen agencies.
Willamette Falls Trust has taken on engaging the public and raising funds to support the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, a major collaboration effort between the tribes and various governmental agencies in the redevelopment of the former industrial land around the falls in a way that pays homage to the sacred site with cultural significance to Pacific Northwest tribes. Willamette Falls Trust members included four other federally recognized tribes and government representatives from Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro and the state of Oregon.
The Tribal Council for the Grand Ronde on Thursday, April 22, issued a letter to the Trust notifying its board and Executive Director Andrew Mason that the Grand Ronde have formally withdrawn from the inter-tribal and inter-governmental agency.
Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy told Pamplin Media Group on Wednesday, April 28 that the friction between the Grande Ronde and the Trust stems from perceived disrespect that has perpetuated since the Tribe addressed certain behaviors to the Trust last summer. At that time, Kennedy and her fellow Tribal Council members outlined their grievances as owners of the Blue Heron Mill property — a large swath of land abutting the falls on the Oregon City side which the tribe purchased in 2019 — with the way some of the process was going.
Grand Ronde's latest letter alleges that following the airing of their grievances last summer, the perceived disrespect continued. The tribe outlines two specific concerns, the first regarding an "ultimatum" posed by the Trust to sign a confidentiality agreement the Grand Ronde believes is overly broad. The second is over a Feb. 22 meeting where representatives of the Grand Ronde — Tribal Secretary and Councilmember Jon George and Chief of Staff Stacia Henandez (nee Martin) — were locked out of a project update presentation due to the tribe having not signed the confidentiality agreement.
"These insulting and harmful practices do not demonstrate in any way a commitment to transparency, accountability or partnership," the Grand Ronde Tribal Council wrote in its April 22 letter. "Additionally, the Trust regularly sends out public communications mentioning the Tribe's work at Willamette Falls without prior notice, permission or coordination. However, when the Tribe provides the Trust with important studies or information, that information is not given due consideration and is often ignored or dismissed. The Trust's repeated communication failures have become the norm and not the exception in our relationship."
But representatives for the Trust say that the chafing over the confidentiality agreement and subsequent locking out of the Feb. 22 meeting has nothing to do with disrespect toward the Grand Ronde, but rather it's the requirement of the group's legal standing as a nonprofit and court rulings around disclosure of conflict of interest that required groups that make up the trust to be on the same page. The Grand Ronde was the only group that had not complied in the Trust's eyes and therefore legally had to be left out of the meeting.
Mason told Pamplin Media Group that the Grande Ronde's letter of withdrawal arrived shortly after leaders of the four other tribes — the Siletz, Umatilla, Yakima and Warm Springs tribes — who sit on the Trust's board of directors submitted letters in support of the Trust receiving "full membership" as partners in the legacy project.
"We conferred with our tribal leadership committee, which included all five tribes, now it includes four tribes, and are very clear that our interest and effort is around multi-tribal collaboration at the falls and affirmed our desire to retain a seat in perpetuity both on our tribal leadership committee and on our board of directors for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde," Mason said. "I think mistakes that we can make in this area and in this time of social justice is to treat any one community, one ethnic group, as a monolith. And that's partly our goal for collaboration, is that there are many stories at the falls. The Grand Ronde story is an important one is a central one, as are the stories of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation."
Mason said that the Trust is ready to welcome the Grand Ronde back with open arms whenever the tribe sees fit.
But for Kennedy and the Grand Ronde, their connection to the falls contains a level of stewardship that dates back centuries. For Kennedy, personally, her connection to the falls and Clackamas County can be traced to her ancestor Chief Dan Wacheno whose treaties with the U.S. government date back to 1851.
Kennedy spoke to the Clackamas Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, April 27, regarding how the project intended to be a healing effort, both of the souls of Pacific Northwest tribes and of the shared culture between them and the residents who call Clackamas County home.
But on a fundamental level, Kennedy said, the Grand Ronde has reservations over the role the Trust is meant to play in the greater process of completing the legacy project. She also said that although the Grand Ronde wants the falls to be a place of gathering, friendship and sharing between the many tribes, Clackamas County residents and visitors alike, the treaties the Grand Ronde have with the federal government are, in essence, about setting boundaries and managing conduct between the government and other tribes. For the Grand Ronde, that brings into question what involvement the four other tribes have in the legacy project due to their lack of geographic connection with the falls.
But the inter-tribal leadership commitee that advises the Trust says that the "usual and accustomed treaty rights" that are tied to the four other tribes in the discussion are a concept that move beyond geographic location of the current reservations.
"The bands and tribes that now make up the Yakima Nation, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Siletz tribes all held this traditional and treaty connection to Willamette Falls. Indigenous peoples here did not only stay at their home villages, but moved across the landscape hundreds of miles in a seasonal round," the Trust's tribal leadership committee told Pamplin Media in a statement. "Each Tribe's presence at Willamette Falls — through travel, trade, fishing, gathering and many other parts of cultural practices — are named and protected in each of these treaties, as captured in their letters of support for Willamette Falls Trust."
Matt Johnson, interim deputy executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, asserts that despite the location of their reservations, the four other tribes have well-documented cultural connections to the falls dating back just as far as the Grand Ronde, and members of the Umatilla still travel to the falls annually to fish and take their share of the sacred lamprey from the Willamette River.
Johnson also said that the Umatilla are supporters of an expanded role of the Trust in the partnership between the tribes, state, regional and local government, as well as collaboration to see the legacy project come to fruition.
"We think we think there needs to be a stronger inter-tribal voice among the falls legacy project partners, so we really support the Trust and want to see it have even a more prominent role," Johnson said.
On Wednesday, April 27, the Trust also received formal support for its status as a full partner in the Legacy Project in a letter from the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs Chairman Raymond Tsumpti Sr. In the letter, the Warm Springs reaffirmed their claim to a share of their tribes accustomed Willamette Falls fishing areas as outlined in their 1855 treaty with the U.S. government.
But the Grand Ronde recently commissioned Lewis & Clark College Professor Emeritus Dr. Stephen Dow Beckham — a historian of indigeous people and the American West — to review studies by Pacific Northwest tribes that assert their share of cultural and spiritual claim to the falls.
In March, the Grand Ronde Tribal Council issued a letter following up on Beckham's report, which alleged a study by the Umatilla was "filled with errors of fact, faulty conclusions based on misunderstanding of primary and secondary sources, and accepting as 'truth' virtually anything that is in print."
According to Kennedy, the Grand Ronde's withdrawal also has a bit to do with the lack of results seen so far as the legacy project stretches into its seventh year of planning, engagement and conversations.
"When we looked at the length of time that was being taken to develop the project, again, it was, you know, at least seven years. What do we have to show for it?" Kennedy said.
While the Grand Ronde shifts focus of their efforts to the design and implementation of plans for the riverwalk near downtown Oregon City, Kennedy expressed that the tribe is not precluding itself from potentially rejoining the Trust in the future. But that would require a major discussion and mutual understanding over the role each organization has to play in this process, as well as the rebuilding of trust and friendship that has eroded in recent months.
"We're very committed to the process. One of our cultural values is to share. We are a generous people, and so we don't want to keep this just to ourselves," Kennedy said. "Other people need the healing that comes from this experience, and we want people to share in that, so we're moving forward."
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