Oregon City officials stepped into the middle of a dispute over a proposed memorial to five Native people who were hanged in the 1800s, adding to intertribal disagreements that have contributed to delays of an even bigger project: constructing the $65 million public walkway envisioned to draw Willamette Falls visitors worldwide.
At stake in the conflict are $12.5 million in Oregon Lottery-backed bonds towards the walkway's first construction phase that the state could withdraw if delays continue indefinitely.
Umatilla tribal leaders want to build their memorial to the Cayuse Five near Willamette Falls, but it's reignited tensions with the Grand Ronde tribes who traditionally lived in the area around the falls. As newly released public records show, Oregon City staff didn't help matters by jumping the gun in approving a "final" site for the Umatilla memorial without consulting the Grand Ronde.
Umatilla want their Cayuse Five memorial overlooking the Grand Ronde property at Willamette Falls, but evidence has surfaced to suggest this is land where Grand Ronde burials have been. The Cayuse Five are rumored to be buried in unmarked graves at Abernethy Creek, on the other end of downtown, but neither tribe is changing their position on the proposed memorial location, leaving governmental officials open to accusations of broken promises.
A promise by four governmental partners — Metro, the city, the state and Clackamas County — to provide closer public access to the second largest waterfall in North America has been delayed over and over — and over and over again, for a total of five years so far. Construction originally scheduled to break ground in 2018 will now begin in 2023 at the earliest, with completion in 2026. The Willamette Falls Legacy Project's three-year clock for designing and constructing the walkway won't start again until the partners can agree on a "change to the governance structure in a manner that works for the parties," according to a spokesperson for the regional government.
Rising tensions over the Cayuse memorial are the latest in a series of issues that have affected relations between partners in the walkway project. Willamette Falls project planners first attributed the delays to developer George Heidgerken, then to the current tribal property owners, and now to a request by four other tribes to become formally involved in the project through a nonprofit organization.
Five tribes claim Willamette Falls ties; scroll down to section of 'Walkway project delays' to read more about how Metro and a nonprofit group have tried to mediate
Metro's timeline for constructing the walkway project initially was pushed back to a 2020 groundbreaking due to a former property owner's refusal to pay taxes and sign permit applications. Then the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde bought the property in August 2019 and wanted to revise the alignment of the riverwalk, which then pushed the project to a projected 2021 groundbreaking.
After discussions that took longer than expected, officials in February tentatively agreed on a plan for an 800-foot walkway alignment, significantly scaling back the project and only bringing the sidewalk about half the distance originally envisioned. Regional leaders' approval of the walkway concept in February turned out to be only a tentative, verbal agreement. Metro said it was looking forward to applying for construction of the walkway, but then a request to have four neighboring tribes formally represented in the governmental partnership threw another monkey wrench in the process.
"Our understanding is that the project was put on hold by the government partners until a government structure can be sorted out," said Grand Ronde spokesperson Sara Thompson. "We do not currently have an active Corps of Engineers permit application before us to review."
Metro officials confirmed that the Willamette Falls walkway construction delays will continue until the state, county, tribal and city partners can sign a new agreement. According to current intergovernmental agreements, the regional government is in charge of Riverwalk project management.
"Design and construction for the project is on hold while staff from the parties work to respond to the consensus direction from the partners in August to draft a new partnership agreement," said Metro spokesperson Carrie Belding.
While some of the same tribal and governmental players are involved in both projects, Metro officials said they were not involved with decisions around the siting or permitting of a Cayuse Five Memorial in Oregon City. In response to a request from tribal leaders involved in planning the walkway, Metro staff facilitated introductions between Oregon City staff and Umatilla leaders so they could have discussions about a memorial. According to a Metro spokesperson the "location for the memorial was understood to be determined through conversations" between Oregon City and tribal leaders.
'Final' memorial site reconsidered
On June 25, four Umatilla tribal members consecrated the site for the memorial in a ceremony characterized by Oregon City staff as "finalizing" the memorial's location. In a July email, Metro Senior Parks Planner Alex Gilbertson recognized Oregon City staff for "moving quickly" on the Cayuse memorial at the request of the Umatilla tribe.
Then the expedited project came to a halt just when the city was ready to formalize an $86,000 contract with Wallis Engineering to design the memorial. Grand Ronde tribal members got wind of the proposed memorial and expressed initial concerns at the Sept. 15 Oregon City Commission meeting, just as city commissioners expressed some reservations about the how quickly the project was moving forward.
An article from Oregon City's newspaper in 1912 discussed how the McLoughlin bluff contains a "desecrated Indian burial ground" for the Clackamas people (one of the Grand Ronde tribes) where vandals had carried off relics and human bones. In a Nov. 17 letter to Oregon City officials, Grand Ronde Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy wrote that she'd be willing to work with Umatilla leaders to find an alternative memorial site.
"We are concerned that the proposed memorial will impact the burial locations of our ancestors," Kennedy wrote. "Through research, other locations associated with the events of the Cayuse Five we have identified as taking place elsewhere, noticeably not on the bluff above the Blue Heron site. One such location is the presumed internment location of the Cayuse Five, proximate or generally within the vicinity of today's Abernethy Creek Park."
City Commissioner Rocky Smith later in September said he still had "concerns about some of the specifics" of the Cayuse memorial project. Commissioner Frank O'Donnell didn't see how he could approve a contract without a concept suitable for bidding and construction purposes, and expressed concerns that the proposed site might have been a burial area for other tribes.
"I hesitate to proceed with this award, only to find out that the site is not suitable, or the proposed memorial does not meet the approval of Umatilla," O'Donnell said. "I am in favor of the memorial, but feel these issues need to be resolved prior to the award of any contract."
N. Kathryn Brigham, chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, wrote in a Sept. 23 letter to city officials that the Umatilla consecrated the proposed site for the memorial on the McLoughlin Promenade in preparation for the design and construction of the project there. Brigham responded to the initial Grand Ronde concerns about the memorial site by reminding Oregon City officials of the time and resources already devoted to the project.
"It is within Oregon City's authority to consult with whomever they wish," Brigham wrote. "While we understand that informing the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde of the project may be appropriate, we do not believe consultation with any other tribe on the design of the tribute to our ancestors is necessary or appropriate."
Brigham wrote that promises from city officials to pay tribute to the Cayuse ancestors went back decades and have now received "unequaled" willingness from the current city administration, saying, "We have jointly pursued this project based on recent deliberations between Oregon City and Umatilla Tribal leaders. During the 1993 Sesquicentennial of the Oregon Trail, Oregon City officials made a promise to the CTUIR to memorialize the loss of the Cayuse Five. To that end, we are now working to design a tribute to these ancestors in an Oregon City park, the Promenade."
Public records show just how far along the memorial proposal got before the Grand Ronde and city commissioners called for more public process. Umatilla Cultural Resources Protection Program Manager Teara Farrow Ferman told city officials in June that the Cultural Resources Committee and Cayuse Five descendants decided on the location of the memorial and interpretive panel in the McLoughlin Promenade. Their preferred site for the memorial was directly above where the Cayuse Five were hanged in downtown Oregon City.
"They have also decided that for cost efficiency and weather considerations that they would like to use local source stones and a vendor that Oregon City works with," Farrow Ferman wrote. "They would like something natural, like basalt, for the pillars for the recognition of the five Cayuse men and one large boulder made of granite or some other natural stone."
While the project is on hold for now, Mayor Rachel Lyles Smith said that the city still hopes to become host to a Cayuse Five memorial.
"Our hope is to continue forward with the memorial in Oregon City, but we also need to recognize and consider the complexity of our relationships with all of the tribes and the need for better communication," Lyles Smith said.
Walkway project delayed
According to a Sept. 15 report by city staff, Oregon City commissioners and the stakeholders who make up the Willamette Falls Legacy Project's public walkway had recently renewed their commitment to completing the Cayuse memorial in just a few months, at a site determined by both city staff and the Umatilla tribe.
Willamette Falls Trust is the nonprofit working with the Umatilla on both the Cayuse memorial and on becoming more involved in the Riverwalk project. Laura Terway, Oregon City's former community development director, identified the tie between the two organizations in the city's public records recently obtained by Pamplin Media Group.
"Umatilla passed a Resolution stating that they would like the Willamette Falls Trust to represent them with government interactions due to capacity limitations," Terway wrote in June. "They have built a relationship with the Trust over the past year and are also interested in the Trust applying for grants on their behalf if there are funding gaps in this (Cayuse memorial) project."
Grand Ronde tribal members in April withdrew from the Willamette Falls Trust, the nonprofit organization with board members from more than a dozen agencies working together to raise funding for the walkway project. Grand Ronde's action was the culmination of several perceived missteps by the nonprofit, including the trust's appointment of an equal number of board members from neighboring tribes that the Grand Ronde said historically paid tribute when visiting the area.
In 2020, Willamette Falls Trust acknowledged "significant harm" caused to the Grand Ronde through the trust's culturally insensitive and historically inaccurate presentations. Willamette Falls Trust's public presentation referred to the "discovery" of technical information, bringing to mind a painful term when used to reference white settlers' arrival to the Pacific Northwest. While the term "discovery" was used in reference to an architectural planning process, not discovery by settlers, the Trust promised to avoid the term in the future and use "culturally responsive language." Their intentional use of a fishing-platform photo at Celilo Falls, to show the traditional use of a fishing platform, was seen as conflating Willamette Falls with the Columbia River waterfall submerged by The Dalles Dam.
Willamette Falls Trust members include four federally recognized tribes and government representatives from Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro and the state of Oregon. Grande Ronde's letter of withdrawal arrived shortly after leaders of the four other tribes — the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians; the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs — 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. These other four tribes say that their presence at Willamette Falls was established through travel, trade, fishing, gathering and other cultural practices. Each of these four tribes has established "usual and accustomed" treaty rights to Willamette Falls with the federal government, ensuring their ability to fish there seasonally.
Umatilla's tribal chair said Willamette Falls Trust is an essential group for the success of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, and to date has been the only avenue for intertribal participation in the walkway project.
"Willamette Falls is featured in many of the stories told about our region: the pioneer story, the founding of the state, and the industry that powered the economy," said Andrew Mason, executive director of Willamette Falls Trust. "Indigenous voices have been notably missing from these narratives. The creation of the public riverwalk offers an opportunity to center Indigenous connections to the falls in design, interpretation and programming, transforming a place with a complex and troubled history into a living gesture of reconciliation."
Willamette Falls Legacy Project officials reached a consensus in August to restructure the partnership to include the Trust, but a final decision won't be reached until the legacy group meets again, and the usual quarterly meeting of the group is not scheduled. Metro officials are hopeful that another partners meeting can be scheduled in early 2022.
Umatilla's tribal chair said their Cayuse ancestors were executed in Oregon City on June 3, 1850, "after an unfair and unjust trial," in one of the first formal judicial proceedings held in the new Oregon Territory. On May 13, 1850, a grand jury indicted the five Native prisoners named Telakite, Tomahas, Clokomas, Isiaasheluckas and Kiamasumkin on charges of murdering Protestant missionary Marcus Whitman over two years prior near Walla Walla, Washington.
Approximately half of the tribe died during a measles epidemic that began at the Whitman Mission in 1847. In a letter to the Secretary of War in October 1849, Gov. Joseph Lane said there were no more than 800 Cayuse left.
As soon as he took office on March 3, 1849, Lane opened negotiations with the Cayuse for the arrest of "those concerned in that horrible massacre." In a meeting with Cayuse tribal leaders at The Dalles in April, he offered peace and friendship if "the murderers" were "tried and dealt with." If not, he promised the Cayuse a war "which would lead to their total destruction," because the newly expanded federal government "could not discriminate between the innocent and guilty."
According to the Oregon Historical Society, the Cayuse surrendered five volunteers from their band in an attempt to broker peace. But these five Cayuse volunteers likely weren't the ones who actually killed Whitman for bringing the epidemic, according to the general consensus among historians. Ronald Lansing, an Oregon law professor and author of a book about the trial, said the Oregon Territory's new judge committed a clear violation of the hearsay rule and the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment by telling jurors the defendants' guilt was proven by the fact that the tribe had turned them over to the authorities.
Dr. John McLoughlin, founder of Oregon City, testified at the trial that he had warned Whitman of the dangers of living among the Cayuse, partly because they customarily killed medicine men whose patients died. Elizabeth Sager, who was 10 years old at the time of the attack, said she saw Isiaasheluckas and another Indian "attempting to throw down" Luke Saunders, the mission's schoolteacher.
Judge Orville C. Pratt denied motions by the defense for a different trial time and place less hostile to the Cayuse, or to dismiss the indictment based on ex post facto law, in other words charging a crime that took place before the founding of the Oregon Territory, which then lacked any formalized federal law criminalizing the incident. A jury of 12 white men deliberated 75 minutes before reaching a guilty verdict.
Lane declared his resignation as governor, effective on June 18, 1850. Lane's replacement vowed to pardon the five Cayuse, but pardoning power wouldn't take effect until 25 days after trial. In light of the pending pardon, U.S. Marshal Joseph Meek wondered if it was proper to delay the hangings for two more weeks, but Judge Pratt told Meek to proceed as ordered in the court's ruling to take the prisoners to the gallows.
This story was updated on Nov. 23 from its original online version with additional comments and corrections from the Willamette Falls Trust.
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