Four tribes that had fishing villages wiped out in the last century are left waiting for the federal government to provide better housing
March 11, 2016
Johnny Jackson lives just a few yards from the Columbia River but had no way to tap into the fast moving current when he needed it most.
Jackson’s house in Underwood caught fire almost two years ago after his propane tanks exploded. Fire trucks came to his aid but could back in only one at a time down a narrow dirt path.
A yellow fire hydrant is located just a few feet away, but it wasn’t connected to any water source then. And it still isn’t connected today.
The ground remains scorched where Jackson’s house once stood. The fire destroyed trees he had planted and the sheds he had built by hand to preserve the salmon he caught.
The 86-year-old chief of the Cascade band in the Yakama Nation has since faced an impossible choice: survive along the river, or move away from the home and livelihood he’s always known. He has chosen to stay in a beat-up trailer.
Decades ago, the federal government wiped out thriving Native American settlements along the Columbia River to make way for three dams. The villages were later replaced with 31 designated encampments, like the one in Underwood, where Jackson’s parents located after their ancestral lands had flooded.
The Oregonian/OregonLive traveled to all 31 of the active fishing villages from Cascade Locks to just past Boardman on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the Columbia River. Deplorable conditions can be found at nearly all of them. The sites that are considered the best for fishing are overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe. Only one of the sites has a working high pressure fire spigot connecting to the Columbia. But it’s not at Underwood.
An electric cord stretches from a shuttered restroom, allowing residents access to power at the Underwood site. The smaller structure is the restroom shared by the camp’s residents.
Electricity is scarce at all of the fishing sites, prompting residents to patch together webs of extension cords that crisscross gravel paths connected to slapdash housing made out of plywood and tarps. Often, those cords lie in puddles after a rain or near propane tanks – a spark away from trouble. Poverty plagues the communities, making even small fixes like insulating their homes seem out of reach. Children and elderly tribal members are surrounded by broken glass and rusted edges.
When the dams were being built, federal officials promised adequate permanent housing for the Warm Springs, Yakama Nation, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes that fish for salmon in the Columbia River. That promise has yet to materialize.
Federal officials in the 1970s began to painstakingly relocate several predominantly white towns that were in the path of the dams. But none of the centuries-old Native American settlements received the same treatment. It took the federal government 20 years after the first dam opened to designate even the first temporary fishing spots for tribal use.
In 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Portland publicly acknowledged it never fulfilled its duty to find permanent housing for tribal fishing families displaced first by the construction of Bonneville Dam 80 years earlier and then The Dalles and John Day dams about 20 years after. No infrastructure has been put in place for year-round living, and only a handful of permanent houses have been built to help compensate for a lost way of life for what is likely thousands of tribal members.
The Army Corps did set up a fund in the 1990s to help pay for maintenance of the encampments. But at the rate things are going, it will be depleted in about six years – nearly 30 years ahead of schedule.
“We understand there are some terrible living conditions there,” said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Portland District spokeswoman Diana Fredlund.
Few of the sites are as bad as Lone Pine.
It sits in the shadow of The Dalles Dam, a gray concrete monolith that loudly gushes water out of its sides. An American flag that looks like it is fluttering in the wind is painted on the side facing Lone Pine.
The Lone Pine year-round tribal fishing site.
About 35 families live there. They share a single restroom with four shower stalls and four toilets – none of which has a door. The toilets occasionally back up onto the floor of the bathroom, sending the smell of waste wafting through the camp. With so many families living there, the sanitation truck almost never arrives soon enough.
Lone Pine is gated, separating it from The Dalles, a hub of Columbia Gorge life. The tribal members don’t have access to the city’s amenities like electricity. Instead, residents have to jack it from the bathroom lights and generators.
Paul Lumley, a Yakama Nation tribe member and director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, stood with his back to The Dalles Dam on a sunny afternoon and motioned to its walls.
“It’s created incredible wealth and in the shadow of the dam, you have this,” Lumley said. “It’s a national embarrassment.”
Buried under water
When Lewis and Clark finally reached Oregon and the Columbia River, they entered the territory of four main tribes that roamed hundreds of thousands of square miles from British Columbia along the Pacific Ocean all the way south to Nevada and as far east as Wyoming.
The tribes moved from one food source to another throughout the year. When salmon clogged the Columbia River by the millions, tribal fishing families followed their migration from west to east.
After the salmon spawned, many tribal members moved on to hunt elk or forage for berries. But the river and the fishing villages would be the year-round economic and social heart of life for hundreds of families. The fish bind the tribes to both the land and water. The fishing families see themselves as stewards and the salmon as a spiritual gift.
Celilo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited Native American settlement in the United States, hummed with activity as tribes from Washington, California and Idaho exchanged goods. Native Americans caught 2.5 million pounds of fish annually, according to the Oregon Historical Society before The Dalles Dam opened in 1957. When the dam was finished, Celilo was buried underwater.
Like Bonneville Dam before it, The Dalles Dam devastated the salmon runs. The John Day Dam followed in 1971. The three together turned the narrow, white-capped rapids of the Columbia River into more docile pools that made irrigation and river navigation easier for the mostly white people who were building communities in Portland and in the Columbia River Gorge.
The three dams generate 40 percent of Oregon’s electricity – a tremendous amount in an era where hydropower is often considered more sustainable than coal or oil.
The timber industry benefitted from easy access to the river to transport logs downstream. After that, the tourist industry boomed. Today, windsurfers can be seen on any warm day slicing the Columbia’s surface with their sails.
The abundant economic benefits of the dams helped transform the Pacific Northwest. But it came at the expense of a 9,000-year-old way of life for the tribes.
Other towns got moved
When it came time to move people living in the path of the dams, here’s how the federal government allocated the resources: $52 million went to move thousands of residents of seven mostly white towns. And $210,000 was spent to move 44 tribal members.
That meant the Army Corps spent about 248 times more on white residents than on tribal members.
The most expensive relocation was North Bonneville, a town that had sprouted up near Bonneville Dam when construction workers settled there. By the 1970s, North Bonneville stood in the path of new dam buildings that the federal government decided it needed. The town would have to go.
But North Bonneville residents had something the tribes lacked at the time – friends in Congress. They enlisted U.S. Rep. Mike McCormack, who wrote assurances into the Water Development Act of 1974. His amendment paved the way to relocate an entire town.
Eventually the Corps would design and build the amenities for a whole new city – streets, a sewage system, electrical connections and water storage to the tune of $35 million. Today, North Bonneville occupies 2.6-square-miles west of the Bridge of the Gods. A school is centrally located in the Washington city. During a hot summer day in 2015, kids rode bikes through the quiet streets while dads mowed lawns.
The tidy streets and large lots in the town of North Bonneville is a stark contrast to the the Columbia River tribal fishing site.
“I’m talking about one community that was being formed by the people who lived there,” said McCormack, now 94. “It seemed to me that that was a necessary part of the relocation.”
He doesn’t recall any talk about Native American relocation at the time.
Upriver, six other mostly white towns were relocated for the John Day Dam. Boardman was moved twice, once when Oregon Highway 30 was constructed, and then again when the dam was built.
“I’m not jealous, I’m happy for them. They did right by these people,” said Lumley, who grew up fishing on the Columbia River with his family and now advocates for permanent housing for Native Americans. “But up and down this river, there are tribal communities that are owed the same thing.”
Rather than new homes and a modern infrastructure, the tribes wound up with sites like Lone Pine.
The federal government signed a treaty with the four tribes in 1855 that guaranteed access to the tribes’ “usual and accustomed” modes of living. To meet the requirements of the 100-year-old treaty, The Army Corps said it would replace the old tribal villages with something comparable.
So, the agency reserved land for the tribes to fish. It would take 20 years for the Army Corps to clear land, lay concrete, install toilets and build boat docks for the first five sites.
The Army Corps acknowledged in its 2013 report that it should have built permanent houses – either on the 31 sites or elsewhere for tribal members who had been displaced. But 80 years after the Bonneville Dam opened, only 15 houses have been constructed.
Since the 2013 report, no new homes have been built. Plans to move forward have been stuck in bureaucratic limbo. The Army Corps is divided into three layers – district, regional and national offices. All must approve the report before it can be acted upon. To date, only the Portland district office has signed off. And that’s just the beginning.
“It’s a draft report. It doesn’t speak to obligations,” Army Corps Project Manager Eric Stricklin said.
Hamilton said the agency would need to conduct an entirely new study to determine solutions to the housing crisis. Finally, Congress would need to set aside the money to make it happen.
“There’s always enough money for these windsurfers and tourists,” said Klickitat Chief Wilbur Slockish Jr., who is part of the Yakama Nation. “But there’s never enough for us.”
By the 1960s, almost 40 acres of land along the river was dedicated to the first five sites – Cascade Locks and Lone Pine on the Oregon side; Cooks, Wind River and Underwood in Washington.
The Cooks year-round tribal fishing site is open to year-round living, though limited access to basic utilities and overcrowding have lead to squalid conditions.
Tribal fishing crews immediately started moving back to the river after the sites were built. All lack basic infrastructure like sewers and electricity. One site doesn’t even have running water.
But the tribes were drawn to their old ways of living. Plus, the salmon population that had diminished in the wake of the dam construction started returning.
Before 1990, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs decided it wouldn’t allow the tribes to live permanently along the river, saying the sites could only be used during the fishing season.
Soon after, the Native Americans sued and won the right to stay on the land. But the Army Corps did not improve the existing sites to accommodate the permanent residents. The tribal members instead cobbled together their own homes and brought in trailers.
The legal victory only applied to the first five sites built more than 50 years ago. The 26 sites that have been built since can only house seasonal fishing crews.
Not enough room
None of the sites have neither the space nor the facilities to accommodate temporary or year-round residents. That’s due in part to the federal government’s apparent miscalculation decades ago of how much space would be needed for tribal fishing families.
What do you think?
- Should the federal government speed up its plan to build permanent housing for the tribes?
The Army Corps used records from the 1930s and ’40s to guess how many people might use the sites. At the time, the U.S. Census identified fewer than 100 families who lived along the river.
At least two of the tribes said those numbers were drastically undercounted. At least 600 families lived at a single village near Wishram, Washington, before the dams were built, according to documents citing a Yakama Nation tribal leader in 1942. Both prejudice and a misunderstanding of the tribes’ migratory lifestyles likely contributed to the disparity, according to the Army Corps report.
Because the population fluctuates with the season, no one has an accurate count of how many tribal members use the 31 sites these days, but the rough estimate is in the hundreds.
The result of the undercount is apparent at nearly all the fishing communities. A typical site has between six and 12 spaces for temporary camping. The 30-by-36 rectangles are suitable for one or two tents. When fishing crews descend in the spring, they jostle for one of these spots, because most have water hand-pumps.
Wyeth, a 14-acre site west of Cascade Locks, has six of the camp squares clustered together. The crews lucky enough to get one pack people in.
Six people, three tents and two puppies occupied one square, sandwiched between two similarly full spots. These aren’t weekend campers headed back to hot baths and clean sheets on Monday. The tribal fishing families tend to stay on these sites for six months or longer.
Ian Tohet, a Warm Springs tribe member, emerged from his tent by ducking and shimmying sideways between his tent and his brother’s. His fishing crew had lined up their three tattered pup tents in a row with barely enough room to get in and out of each.
Ian Tohet, a Warm Springs tribe member, was one of six people at the Wyeth seasonal tribal fishing site in early September, 2015.. He and his family live in a tent and cook outdoors.
Tohet created a kitchen area by connecting the tarps under their tents with the tarps surrounding a camp stove and generator. Propane tanks were scattered, some on their side, next to where they prepare food.
Those who arrive too late to grab one of the few campsites must set up wherever they can find room. At one site, that meant covering an open-air ceremonial shed with a tarp, turning it into living quarters. At another, a four-foot-tall structure built from cardboard, plywood and tarps was squeezed between two trailers.
Running out of money
Even with the overcrowding, tribal members say these scenes are a vast improvement compared to a decade ago when the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs was in charge.
Back then, if tribal members needed to call police, a sign posted at the fishing sites listed a phone number that was sometimes answered in Wyoming. Violence and vandalism were more rampant.
In 2003, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission requested that the federal government allow it to manage the sites. The fish commission was created by the four fishing tribes and included local representatives. The initial goal of the commission was to establish the salmon season dates and help build up the fish runs.
Housing is far from their mission. But, the problems at the sites became inextricable for the commission, said Lumley, the Yakama Nation tribe member, who serves as a director.
Michael Broncheau at the Cascade Locks year-round tribal fishing site.
The commission has taken on matters of basic governance, coordinating a 12-person law enforcement team based in the Gorge. A seven-person cleaning crew visits each site at least once a week, more in the summer. Fishing Site Maintenance Department manager Michael Broncheau, a Nez Perce tribe member, installed solar lights in many parking lots, boat ramps, fish cleaning stations and restrooms.
Money for these improvements is running out quickly, though. The Army Corps set aside $6.3 million for 50 years of upkeep. The amount was calculated with the same formula that determined the size of the sites. But because that number miscounted usage, the tribes are burning through the funds faster than anticipated.
His crews are cleaning the sites more each year because more fishing crews come every year. Broncheau would like to increase the size of his staff, but he can’t afford to.
The federal government also shortchanged the tribes on the amount of land allocated for fishing villages, according to documents and interviews with tribal members. The Army Corps promised 410 acres of land for fishing sites for land taken by the Bonneville Dam alone. So far, the government has dedicated 189 acres spread among 12 sites.
Nearly 20 acres large, the Threemile Canyon site in Oregon is land set aside for tribal fishing crews on the Columbia River. Solar panels provide the only electricity at the site.
Some of the land, however, is of no use to the tribes.
Take the site at Threemile Canyon. Just outside of Boardman, the canyon is one of the largest of the 31 sites. In the winter, the wind blows through the high desert landscape fast enough to force people to shout to be heard. Each of the six campsites has a five-foot high concrete windbreak, the only respite from the gales.
Those campsites take up a small fraction of the 20-acre site. The rest is covered in thick, scratchy scrub brush on a hillside too steep to camp on. Threemile Canyon is a popular spot to set out nets at night in the summer, but by November, when other campgrounds are still occupied by fishing families, this one is barren because of the harsh elements.
Tribal members consider another 3-acre site at Alder Creek to be virtually worthless. The river access is too narrow and the current too quick to successfully launch boats into the river. Broncheau has seen it used only once in his frequent trips. But the federal government still counts those three acres toward its goal of compensating the tribes for long-gone fishing villages.
“How we treat Indian Country is shameful,” said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon. “We have cheated Native Americans out of their heritage.”
What the future holds
In 2015, Northwest lawmakers started paying attention to the plight of the Columbia River tribes.
“Until this year, I was not fully aware of the magnitude of the problem and the history,” Blumenauer said. “That’s my fault, but I’m not planning on another year passing without making it hard for people to ignore it.”
What do you think?
- If you were in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers, how would you respond?
Blumenauer signed a letter last year with Oregon and Washington’s U.S. senators urging the Army Corps to find money in its budget to fulfill the federal government’s promise of housing.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said the Oregon Democrat is pushing for federal action.
“Sen. Merkley’s office is well aware of the dire conditions that tribal members have been living in along the Columbia River and our office is asking the Army Corps of Engineers to quickly fulfill the obligation they made to communities who were displaced when the dams along the Columbia River were constructed,” said spokeswoman Courtney Warner Crowell.
So far, no money has been allocated.
An Army Corps spokeswoman estimated that it will take at least three more years before the plans approved in Portland get final sign off and money can be set aside.
Meanwhile, at Lone Pine, tribal members work hard to survive where they feel most at home.
“Yeah, it’d be nice to have a house,” said Bernadette Grace, standing in the doorway of her trailer where she keeps all her life’s belongings.
Then she laughed at the idea. She’d really just like to get an electrical hookup, she said.
Grace, a member of the Yakama Nation tribe, has lived on and off the Lone Pine tribal fishing site for 26 years.
Salmon dry in a shack on the Lone Pine year-round tribal fishing site.
During the summer, Grace cleans freshly caught salmon at a steel fish cleaning table next to the bathrooms, then hangs them to dry in a shed the tribal members made themselves. The federal government provided a metal dry shed that ended up cooking the fish in the heat, so the tribal members built one out of cheap wood. Grace barricades the door with a propane tank to keep people from stealing her fish.
She uses the bedroom of her dented and faded blue-and-white trailer to store her preserved catch, which she sells at the tribal fish stands dotting Highway 84. She finds room to sleep elsewhere in her tiny, cramped trailer with a built-in one-burner stove. She keeps a camp stove next to her other stove to give her enough room to cook.
Grace’s parents lived at the site, before moving her to a house in The Dalles as a kid. Her father, who grew up on the Yakama Nation reservation, spent the fishing season along the river. Grace’s daughter was born at Lone Pine, and her 4-year-old granddaughter already learned that the river points the way home.
It’s not an easy life, but the one Grace, at 50, knows best. She moved away a few times, and every time she left, she yearned to be back along the banks of the Columbia.
“I’m lost without my river,” Grace said.
Chronology of a changing a river — and a lost way of life
1933: Bonneville Dam construction begins, part of the “New Deal” legislation under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
1938: Bonneville Dam opens
1952: The Dalles Dam construction begins
1955: Construction begins on five sites where members of the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes can fish.
1957: The Dalles Dam opens
1958: John Day Dam construction begins
1971: John Day Dam opens and North Bonneville becomes the site of the Bonneville Dam’s second powerhouse, meaning residents must move.
1978: The new North Bonneville is officially completed.
1981: Bonneville Dam’s second powerhouse is completed.
1995: Construction begins on 25 more tribal fishing sites where members of the Warm Springs, Yakama Nation, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes can fish.
2013: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland issues a report that acknowledges promises to build houses for displaced tribal members are unfulfilled. The last tribal fishing site, Rufus, opens. It’s the only one of 31 fishing sites with a hookup for a high-powered fire hose.
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