When the Bonneville Dam was constructed in 1938, the resulting expansion of waters behind the dam displaced dozens of Native American families from their homes along the Columbia River, their ancestral fishing area. For many, adequate funds and sites for new housing were not forthcoming. The lack of housing for tribal members along the river is a problem that has persisted for decades, but new legislation in Congress, sponsored by senators from Washington and Oregon, would fund basic sanitation and restart studies on potential housing solutions.
“I believe it is critical for there to be safe, reliable housing along the Columbia River so treaty tribes can exercise their protected rights,” Sen. Patty Murray said in a statement. “Salmon fishing is an integral part of the Native American legacy, and this legislation aims to make long-overdue improvements to tribal fishing access rights while we work on the longer-term need for additional housing. This is an important step toward honoring tribal rights.” Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), which represents the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce on fisheries issues, is optimistic congressional and tribal leaders will develop housing solutions soon. In the meantime, CRITFC is doing what it can to maintain the sites as part of its mission to provide access to the fishery. “The community needs help, they really do,” Lumley said. “They just want the most basic services, water, sewer. It’s sad actually, they’ve practically given up on the dream of village replacements after all these years.”
A 2013 study commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found evidence that at least 45 families were displaced by the rising waters behind Bonneville Dam and never compensated, along with about 30 more displaced by construction of the Dalles Dam two decades later. The tribes say that report significantly underestimates how many families were impacted. Corps treaty fishing-access-program manager Eric Stricklin said there wasn’t much discussion about replacement housing or compensation for lost property with tribal leaders when the dam was under construction. “What I’ve been able to figure out is during the construction of Bonneville, there was some negotiation with the tribes and it resulted in the 1939 agreement in which tribes really focused on fishing access, that was paramount,” Stricklin said.
If Congress provides funds for the construction of new homes for those displaced by Bonneville Dam, allocation could be complicated. “Would they give houses to the families that were here then or the people who are here now?” said Yakama fisherman Will Zack. In the meantime, nearly 70 people are living around the access site where he cleans and sells fish, in tents, RVs and illegal makeshift shelters. CRITFC sponsored a site cleanup, tearing down illegal structures and hauling out trash. There is a new law enforcement presence to combat drug activity in what was for years a lawless land, under no specific local or tribal jurisdiction. CRITFC’s efforts have made made a big improvement, Lumley said, but the fishing-focused organization can’t really tackle the housing crisis. He’s hopeful an ongoing conversation between the Columbia River tribes about creating an intertribal housing and economic-development agency will come to fruition and bring further progress.