The construction of dams on the Columbia River displaced many tribal families that had been living and fishing there for generations, since time immemorial.
The displacement and destruction of fishing sites, individual homes and villages along the river creates an obligation on the part of the federal government.
To address part of this obligation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked with the Columbia River tribes to create fishing access and in-lieu sites at the river. This took several years and millions of dollars to accomplish, the result being 31 tribal in-lieu and access sites at the river.
As part compensation, the Corps of Engineers also built a new longhouse, infrastructure and homes at Celilo Village.
These accomplishments are to be celebrated, because of the years of work that went into the projects, said Louie Pitt, director of tribal Governmental Affairs.
But the outcome has been imperfect, he said, because of the scope of the damage from the dams. For instance, the Celilo Village project was and remains contentious, in part because of the question of who was receive a new home.
The planners used historical records, and to the best of their ability tried to come up with a fair solution. But the result was imperfect, “And some people are still unhappy about it,” Mr. Pitt was saying last week at Tribal Council.
In these situations—because of the size and cost of the obligation—the only options seem to be to come up with some solution in a reasonably timely way, or to do nothing at all.
Several decades after the construction of the dams, the federal government now appears ready to address another obligation that exists at the river—that of housing to displaced tribal families.
The process for this project will be at least as complex as the Celilo Village project, and possibly much more so.
Time is now
All parties agree that as long as the dams exist, the federal government has an obligation to provide housing for families and villages that were displaced by the construction of the dams.
The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission has been coordinating the effort to hold the government accountable to the obligation. CRITFC executive director Paul Lumley, and CRITFC policy analyst Laurie Jordan met last week with Tribal Council on the issue.
“The potential for tribal housing at the Columbia River is the best I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Lumley said.
“But if we don’t get something going now,” he said, “we’ll have to start over.”
There will be a change in the Presidential administration next year, Mr. Lumley said. And the House and some Senate seats are up for election.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senators from Oregon and Washington, and Congressman Earl Blumenauer sent a letter in November of last year in support the project.
“… this situation requires immediate attention,” the letter says. “We therefore urge you to complete the legal analysis as quickly as possible in order to inform the Army Corps’ Fiscal Year 2016 Work Plan and the President’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget process.”
The letter is addressed to the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Civil Works, U.S. Department of the Army. The potential for a federal appropriation clear, Mr. Lumley said, but the tribes have to develop a plan.
CRITFC has been the lead party so far in the process, but tribal housing is not necessarily a core mission of the commission. Instead, the tribes now have to take the lead in developing a long-term plan.
Agreement on a plan among the treaty tribes of the Columbia is important, Lumley said, because if one of the tribes is in opposition, then a federal appropriation becomes unlikely.
Warm Springs and Yakama would be the lead tribes for a zone 6 housing program. The approach recommended by CRITFC is to establish a Tribally Designated Housing Authority at the Columbia River.
This would be similar to a tribal Housing Authority, but the jurisdiction would be areas along the river, rather than the reservation.
Toward the goal of developing a long-term plan, Tribal Council members are planning to meet soon with Yakama leaders. There is some urgency in the matter, as the possibility for significant funding is better than ever, Mr. Lumley said.
The project itself—construction of new tribal housing at the river—is long-term. “We’ll need young leadership,” Louie Pitt said, “because this is a 10- to 20-year project.”
Challenge to overcome
The 31 in-lieu and fishing access sites at the Columbia River were developed by the Corps of Engineers in cooperation with the treaty tribes.
The sites were designed and developed mainly for day-use fishing and temporary camping. Some tribal members and others, however, have set up permanent residence at some of these sites.
Water and other utilities are free, so the sites become in effect camps for otherwise homeless people.
As they live away from the reservation, the individuals may have no real access to social programs, health care, child care and education.
Through over-use, the fishing sites and their facilities become unsanitary and unsafe, a situation unfair to other tribal members who should have reasonable access.
It was a tour of these sites that in large part prompted the federal delegation from Oregon and Washington to encourage the Corps of Engineers to move forward with the river housing project.
The presence of these camps presents one of the challenges the tribes will face in developing a long-term plan for housing at the river.
Another issue: the sites by law are now equally accessible to members of the four Columbia River treaty tribes, although the area is traditionally territory of Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Yakama Nation.
Identifying the families that were actually displaced by the dams is one of the major challenges that will have to be addressed.
These challenges, though, should be met: “The dams are they, and they caused a lot of damage,” said Louie Pitt. “All we’re asking is that they keep their word.”