Representatives from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde had reason to celebrate Nov. 26, when the Department of State Lands announced it had affirmed its earlier decision to approve the installation of a fishing platform at Willamette Falls.
The Grand Ronde platform was originally approved Aug. 31, but that decision was appealed in late September by four parties: the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and Portland General Electric.
The three tribes took issue with the Grand Ronde's claim of fishing rights at the falls — which they say were terminated when Grand Ronde was restored as a tribe several decades ago — while PGE said it was primarily concerned about safety and security in an area that it claimed belonged to the company, not the state.
Ultimately, those concerns did not sway Department of State Lands Director Vicki Walker, who affirmed the department's original decision with an additional condition of approval related to future "ground-disturbing activities" at the site, should they occur.
"We are overcome with joy by (the recent) decision from the Oregon Department of State Lands and Director Vicki Walker to uphold Grand Ronde's permit for our ceremonial fishing platform at Willamette Falls," Grand Ronde Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy said in a statement.
"Our ceremonial fishing platform restores an important cultural practice for the Grand Ronde Tribe, our community and our fishermen. ... In the early 1980s the Grand Ronde Tribe was fighting for federal recognition from the United States Government. Now, 35 years after our restoration, our ceremonial fishermen are able to conduct our ceremonial fisheries from a fishing platform at the heart of our ancestral homelands, Willamette Falls."
According to Grand Ronde Deputy Press Secretary Sara Thompson, the platform was completed in October. In keeping with their permit from the Department of State Lands, the Grand Ronde removed the platform Oct. 31 at the end of fishing season and it will be reinstalled at the start of the 2019 season.
While ultimately siding with the Grand Ronde, Walker said the concerns raised by the other tribes and PGE deserved further consideration.
"The issues that have been raised in each of these (appeal) requests are important and deserve continued dialogue," Walker wrote in a letter detailing her decision. "I want to encourage the tribes, PGE and other stakeholders to continue working on a resolution that can accommodate the diverse interests at stake."
The Grand Ronde — a collective of 26 regional Native American bands — was restored by the federal government in 1983, but it took until 2016 for the tribes to regain their fishing rights at Willamette Falls.
The restoration of those rights — which is being contested by other tribes — prompted the need for a fishing platform to improve access and safety. The tribes are allowed to remove 15 fish per year from the river; in the absence of a platform, tribal fishers have been forced to balance on the rocks near the falls while dipping their nets into the water.
Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Communications Director Chuck Sams said the tribes aren't backing down after the state ruling.
"The Confederated Tribes of Umatilla continue to be very disappointed in the decisions made by the director of the Department of State Lands," Sams said. "We will continue to follow the administrative appeals process as laid out by the state and will further review our legal options."
PGE had a similar outlook following the ruling.
"Our goal here remains that we want to find a solution for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde along with other affected tribes to have safe access to site," PGE spokesperson Steve Corson said. "We don't find the state lands' decision to be helpful, and we're disappointed they chose to reaffirm their original decision. We think the land in question is PGE-owned, so their action isn't valid."
Thompson said PGE's stance regarding ownership of the land was both incorrect and inconsistent with its prior statements.
"The State of Oregon completed an extensive review of these issues prior to issuing the permit," Thompson said in an email.
"In fact, before issuing the permit the State held a meeting with PGE and tribal representatives. At this meeting, PGE agreed that platform sites were located on state land."
But PGE isn't backing down.
"At this point we're reviewing our legal options for the best avenue to proceed, which could include an appeal of the department's action," Corson said.
PGE is also discussing alternative measures that would not involve an appeal, but Corson declined to provide specifics.
The appellants can request what is called a "contested case hearing" with the Department of State Lands; this must be done within 20 days after the Nov. 26 decision was mailed.
"The Grand Ronde tribes in Oregon are a restored tribe — they don't have any rights to any federal treaties to hunt, fish or gather," Sams said.
"As a matter of state and federal law, they waived any rights they thought they might have in order to be restored in the 1980s. With that said, we don't wish to infringe on a right they did have secured. But they don't in this case, and we do."
Thompson said the Umatilla and other tribes were missing the point.
"This has nothing to do with federal rights," she said. "This is about Grand Ronde executing a ceremonial fishery at Willamette Falls in accordance with state regulation. That fishery is authorized by the State of Oregon ... Furthermore, it has been established through multiple reports that the fisheries and the usual and accustomed areas of the other tribes do not extend west of Bonneville Dam."
Sams said the platform, which is also referred to as a "scaffold," might cause danger for Umatilla fishers, and that it would set a precedent for more platforms to be built.
"It's too narrow of a spot for a scaffold at this time, and it invites the building of additional scaffolds by other tribes — which would be our right to do without state permission," Sams said, adding that the Umatilla have discussed putting in a platform of their own at the falls.
Again, Thompson disagreed.
"We believe the concerns towards safety are ungrounded," Thompson said, adding that fishers are trained in whitewater safety/rescue and that the Grand Ronde hired experts to help design a safe platform.
"Tribal ceremonial fishermen have been executing this fishery from shore at this same location since 2016. PGE and the other tribes did not expressed concern over the safety of our tribal fishers when they were fishing from shore during the 2016 and 2017 fishing seasons."
As first detailed in a September Willamette Week article, the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes also have concerns about further development at the falls beyond the fishing platform. In that article, a Warm Springs spokesperson mentioned the possibility of the Grand Ronde building a casino in the Portland metro area.
"We don't know what the full scope (is) that the Grand Ronde may have, or intend to have, for the area," Sams said. "The Grand Ronde seem to have a false narrative that says they're the only holders (of the falls)."
Thompson said this narrative is anything but "false."
"It has been well established throughout history that Willamette Falls is part of the ancestral homelands of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. They were ceded to the United States Government under the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855," Thompson said.
She added that the concerns about future development at Willamette Falls were "unsupported opinions."
"The Grand Ronde's execution of this ceremonial fishery and fishing platform at Willamette Falls is about cultural revitalization in Grand Ronde's homelands," she said.
Still, Thompson said the Grand Ronde are willing to sit down with all of the parties in an effort to move forward. She noted that Grand Ronde had a "productive working relationship" with PGE prior to other tribes getting involved in the issue.
"It wasn't until the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes became involved with this issue that PGE changed their position towards the Grand Ronde Tribe's ceremonial fishing platform," Thompson said.
"We would like to find a way to move beyond this disagreement but that requires a willingness by PGE and the other tribes to have those conversations. Despite our best efforts to engage them, they have rebuffed our invitations, excluded us from joint meetings with the state and continued to pursue other paths of obstruction."