Could Willamette Falls be model site for cultural collaboration?
With a series of renovations slated to give the Willamette Falls area a major facelift over the next decade, Indigenous representatives are receiving grant funds to highlight Native knowledge in decisions to be made about the future of the culturally significant land.
Documentation of Native design recommendations for future Willamette Falls-area developments was among the Clackamas County-based projects in contention for receiving funding from the Oregon Heritage Commission, which annually offers a statewide grant program supporting the conservation or development of Oregon's cultural heritage.
Willamette Falls Trust is receiving $20,000 from the Oregon Heritage Commission to aid the nonprofit organization's staff in outlining Indigenous perspectives on new developments. More than 10 pages of design recommendations are envisioned to create a framework for how redevelopment in the area would best facilitate sharing Native stories, support their current religious, social and economic practices and the prioritize habitat-restoration efforts.
"The main efforts here are not only to be able to bring forward what those perspectives are, but to create a table where we can have a collaboration happen," said Gerard Rodriguez, associate director of tribal affairs and engagement who will help lead design recommendation efforts.
Members of the Willamette Falls Trust, a convener of tribal representatives who sought the funding to develop the recommendations, say their planned framework document is intended to facilitate ethical restoration of the land and help Willamette Falls development serve as a national model for equitable collaboration between tribes as well as between Native and non-Native communities.
"For those that have had the chance to experience or go before the falls, you feel just this incredible roar of the second-largest waterfall in the nation, just powering over loose basalt rocks," Rodriguez said. "We want to be able to take a lot of these things that people are kind of exploring now, like including marginalized communities, and put it into practice and say, 'This is what it looks like.' And we have the opportunity to do that here.
"That's ultimately what all of this work is about, is being able to reconnect to that, for the greater public. It's about public access, and kind of restoring that connection to place, and connection to the river," added Rodriguez, who is of Yaqui and Nahuatl heritage. "It's really a shared vision for the questions, 'Where are we? What will we make together?' All of this is about building a better future and doing so by including everybody, especially those who have been living with the land, living alongside it."
Willamette Falls Trust board members include four federally recognized Indigenous 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. The nonprofit formerly included the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde who traditionally lived in the area around the falls, but the Grand Ronde withdrew in April due to disagreements with the Trust.
Tribal leaders who sit on the Trust's board of directors say their presence at the 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.
With the closing of the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City, which has for years barred the community from accessing most of the Willamette Falls site, the Trust says it sees an opportunity "to create a vibrant riverwalk and public commons that will bring forward Indigenous placemaking, reconnect residents and visitors to the Falls, restore habitat and return wildlife, and provide cultural and historic interpretation and programming," per their grant application.
"Now, you see a falls that is kind of surrounded by these industrial impacts for the last 200 years and impacts of colonization that have affected water, that have affected the tastes of the fish that come through there, that have removed some of the traditional plants that would be there and removed everybody's access to be able to see what these falls are," Rodriguez said.
"We've been here for thousands of years — this is just a blink of an eye, you know, industry over the last few hundred years is nothing compared to that. So when we think about the future, let's think of it in that scale," he added, describing the concept as "time immemorial," or "countless generations back, but also countless generations forward."
Four governmental partners — Metro, the city, the state and Clackamas County — created the Willamette Falls Legacy Project to provide closer access to the falls via a public walkway through the Grand Ronde-owned 23 acres of land beneath the now-abandoned paper-mill buildings. Efforts to build the public Riverwalk project have been delayed multiple times over a total of five years so far, including under a previous property owner that sold to the Grand Ronde in 2019. Construction of the $65 million riverwalk project originally scheduled to break ground in 2018 will now begin in 2023 at the earliest, with completion in 2026.
"These projects will take time, so we're doing them for the future," Rodriguez said. "We're doing them for the youth and we want that education and that awareness to be pivotal in this moment, to think about how is this an Indigenous place.
"When you walk on site, for Indigenous people and families to be able to come on there and be able to say, 'OK, this is a place that's for me,' you know, that's going to matter a lot for this generation and beyond, to just have a sense of pride in their culture, to be able to see themselves reflected in the world around them," Rodriguez added. "We don't want it to be a one-off thing. This is something that the whole region needs. This is something that all communities need. And, you know, a project that focuses on elevating tribal voices, elevating community voices, and being able to build that into the world, is something that's not unique to this place.
"This is a really powerful, unprecedented moment where the Trust has been able to facilitate all those tribal voices coming together, but all across the nation, communities struggle to have their voices heard," Rodriguez continued. "There are countless places like this, where tribes are working to help protect the land to help restore the land. And this, this, hopefully, can be a national model, a beacon for how some of that collaboration can take place."
This story was updated on Dec. 6 from its original version online to indicate that the funding was awarded by the state.