Group's contractor MASS Design Group displayed cultural insensitivity in public presentation, Grand Ronde says

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde have received an apology from the nonprofit organization raising money in hopes of building a public walkway to Willamette Falls after the nonprofit hosted a public presentation with harmful historical and cultural inaccuracies called out by the tribes.

PMG FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy spoke about the cultural importance of Willamette Falls in an Oregon City appearance last year.Willamette Falls Trust acknowledged "significant harm from the recent presentations we hosted," board Chair Jodi Bailey wrote in a July 20 formal apology in response to Grand Ronde Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy's July 13 letter.

"While we have and will make mistakes, we will continuously strive to do better," Bailey wrote.

Bailey promised to the tribes that the nonprofit organization will improve "collaborative efforts" with Grand Ronde, who in August 2019 became the owners of the nearly 23-acre Willamette Falls site.

"In honoring these efforts, we recognize that the success of this project is not possible without meaningful collaboration with tribal governments," Bailey wrote.

2016 PMG FILE PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission leaders tour the former Blue Heron Paper Co. mill, a site of longtime cultural importance at Willamette Falls in Oregon City.During its July 20 board meeting, Willamette Falls Trust added five new board members, bringing its total number of voting board members to 14. Three of those new board members include Grand Ronde Council Secretary Jon George, the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians council member Robert Kentta, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees member Armand Minthorn.

Kennedy said the nonprofit's action to appoint these new board members did as much harm as good.

"It would be obvious to most everyone else that the Grand Ronde needs a seat on the board, but then they undermine us by asking other tribes to take seats," Kennedy said. "In this day of racial equity, by and large the board there is not composed of minority people, so they're making decisions that are wrong."

Kennedy said Grand Ronde has a special relationship with Willamette Falls since it signed the treaty that ceded the land to the federal government in 1855, in addition to recently purchasing it back.

"We're the sovereign nation that has the treaty for the entire metropolitan area," Kennedy said. "No other tribe can say that."

Grand Ronde tribal leaders say they traditionally invited other Native peoples throughout the region to trade and fish at Willamette Falls.

"We were the tribe that welcomed different tribes from near and far, and that has not come out in any of the information that has been presented," Kennedy said. "They paid tribute to us by leaving some of what they were able to catch with us."

Willamette Falls Trust Executive Director Andrew Mason said there were a lot of sensitive issues associated with collaboration brought up by other tribal communities, and the nonprofit still has much to address in the coming weeks.

"The substantive follow-up still needs to come," Mason said. "Willamette Falls Trust is striving to be inclusive at Willamette Falls by upholding our charge by making space for the many histories that intersect at the many perspectives at the falls. Collaboration is messy, and sometimes stories conflict. The critical issue is there are many viewpoints from many tribal communities and our role is to facilitate inclusion — not elevate one story over another."

Tribes, city officials take issue

Kennedy's letter said that the Willamette Falls Trust-hosted public presentation had conflated the history of Celilo Falls by using slides of a waterfall submerged by The Dalles Dam.

"The history of Celilo Falls is a painful part of the colonial history on the Columbia River to many tribes, but the Trust and its contractors should understand the differences between them," Kennedy wrote.

Willamette Falls Trust's contractor MASS Design Group used the term "discovery" several times during the presentation, "seemingly unaware of the harmful colonial implication of such language," Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy said the Indigenous story of Willamette Falls must be told by Indigenous people.

"It is a matter of social justice, and efforts to decolonize and begin healing require it," she wrote.

Bailey said that Willamette Falls Trust needed more time to address the specifics of the Grand Ronde letter.

"We are committed to taking action to resolve your concerns," Bailey wrote in response to the tribes. "The Trust experiences the Falls as a place of gathering, healing, and reconciliation and looks forward to continued work guided by that intention."

Oregon City Commissioner Rocky Smith said the city should at least put a hold on its recently approved contract with the Willamette Falls Trust. He and other city officials announced July 15 that they will be consulting with their attorneys and meeting in executive session to review the recently approved contact with the nonprofit.

"This is a very delicate project, and this is a huge mistake," Smith said.

Metro regional government officials who asked Willamette Falls Trust to help with public engagement are taking notice that there is "room for improvement," according to Willamette Falls Legacy Project Manager Brian Moore.

"Navigating the various needs of each of the tribes is a complex and sensitive process, and there are a lot of opportunities for missteps," Moore said. "We can begin crafting meaningful changes to the scope of work for the Trust and MASS, going forward, in support of the Legacy Project."

As previously reported, Metro, which holds an easement through the property to build the walkway, has intergovernmental agreements with Oregon City, Clackamas County and the state to lead the project.

"There are tribes with varying interests at the Willamette Falls, and we have been working to better understand the nuance and complexity of this," Moore said. "This effort (by Willamette Falls Trust) is to support further refinements to the design of the riverwalk, not to replace formal government-to-government consultation."

All of the good and the bad that came with European settlement had historically been centered at the Willamette Falls property, which became the economic engine for incorporating the first city west of the Mississippi River, Moore said. Although contracts with Willamette Falls Trust put the nonprofit in charge of the presentation, Metro recognized its leadership role in the walkway project.

"To the degree that part of the project has harmed any group, we don't want that to happen," Moore said. "The project certainly apologizes for any harm caused."

Project in danger?

Despite the recent apology and ballooning construction costs, both tribal and Metro officials say they remain committed to seeing the project through to provide public access to Willamette Falls. Oregon City officials had expressed concern that the entire project was in danger after reading the letter from the Grand Ronde.

"We share the same concerns and we're committed to working with all the partners to work through the issues and build a great project," said Grand Ronde Chief of Staff Stacia Hernandez.

Metro recently expressed confidence that the project will continue to move forward.

"We are in the process of renegotiating how our respective governmental agencies will work together on this project," Moore said. "It's of prime importance to us that we recognize the Grand Ronde both in terms of a property owner and sovereign nation."

Initial estimates put walkway construction costs through the middle of the site between $20 million and $33 million, but the Grand Ronde now wants to route the path along the river rather than along Main Street. An updated Phase 1 cost, including riverfront access, pin construction for the new concept at around $49 million. State officials have pledged to provide $10 million for construction costs to help bolster the $20 million approved by voters in 2018, but those state funds won't be available indefinitely.

"We've heard from the state that moving forward and demonstrating progress is important," Moore said.

Besides the public walkway, the Grand Ronde tribes are planning a private development on the former Blue Heron Paper Co. mill site that would have to follow the city's mixed-use zoning code for the area, calling for "a vibrant mix of shops, restaurants, offices and housing" in a network of streets friendly to walking and biking.

This story has been edited from its original version online with additional comments about the purpose of Oregon City's executive session on its contract with Willamette Falls Trust.

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