Tribal Government & News

Commission OKs Grand Ronde harvest of salmon at Willamette Falls

By Dean Rhodes and Brent Merrill

Smoke Signals staff

BANDON – The Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission voted by acclamation during its meeting held Friday, April 22, in Bandon to allow ceremonial fishing by members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde at Willamette Falls, restoring rights lost by the Tribe in the 1980s when it was seeking support for its Reservation Plan.

The new rule will allow the harvest of hatchery spring Chinook salmon and/or hatchery summer steelhead for ceremonial purposes with a limit of no more than 15 fish taken per year by Tribal members.

Only hatchery-origin fish will be allowed to be taken. Wild fish will be released unharmed back into the Willamette River.

“I think it was an historic day for the Tribe to recover our fishing rights up at Willamette Falls on a platform,” said Tribal Council Chairman Reyn Leno, who drove four hours to Bandon to testify. “I think it will mean a lot to our people to recover our ceremonial fishing rights. Those rights were a piece of our sovereignty that was taken away from us and I am very proud to get a piece of that back. Sovereignty is something we try to recover on a daily basis. I was very proud to testify for the Tribe.”

Tribal Attorney Rob Greene said he agrees that the vote was an important moment in Tribal history.

“It was a very historic day,” said Greene. “It was part of a process that we have engaged in for many years to recover the Tribe’s rights on its historic lands.”

The Tribe harvested one spring Chinook salmon at Willamette Falls in May 2013 from the fish ladder for use during the First Salmon Ceremony held at the McLean House in West Linn. The authorization was through an amendment to the Tribe’s Oregon Scientific Taking Permit. The process was repeated in 2014 and ’15.

In January 2015, Leno sent a letter to the Department of Fish and Wildlife requesting that state employees assist Tribal staff in formally establishing a seasonal platform fishery at Willamette Falls for the Tribe’s annual First Salmon Ceremony, which will be held this year on Friday, May 6.


Archuleta’s idea

Leno credited Tribal member Greg Archuleta with the idea. He said it was Archuleta who asked the simple question, “Why can’t we have our own platform at Willamette Falls?” and that Tribal leaders and staff took it from there.

“This is a great day for all our Grand Ronde Tribal members. It’s great to hear about the restoration of the Tribe’s fishing by traditional methods at Tumwater (Willamette Falls),” said Archuleta via e-mail.

“This is a continuation of our work with ODFW when we got our ceremonial hunting and our own management plan on the Reservation,” said Leno. “We have a great working relationship with ODFW so we posed the question to them.

“We’ve been fortunate, I think, to recover some of our ceremonial hunting rights and now some of our ceremonial fishing rights. I think that’s a good thing. The commissioners seemed humbled by us coming and asking for something that should have been our right to do in the first place. They (the commissioners) even asked us if we wanted more fish.”

The relationship between the Tribe and the state hasn’t always been so amicable. In the mid-1980s when the Tribe was restored, meetings about hunting and fishing had a much different tone. Sport fishing organizations in Oregon were not only in attendance, but their members also were very vocal and demonstrative in efforts to fight any harvesting and gathering rights the Tribe sought to regain.

Tribal Council Secretary Cheryle A. Kennedy, who served on early Tribal Councils in the 1980s, said it was a “terrible time” for the Tribe and that Tribal Council members felt like they were being held hostage choosing between hunting and fishing rights or getting support for a Reservation Plan that would re-establish a land base for the Tribe.

Leno said the key to the good relationship now has been the Grand Ronde Tribe’s willingness to stay the course and remain respectful.

“I think it’s about patience and the idea that we have been here forever and we are going to be here forever,” said Leno. “In my testimony, I stated that hunting and fishing is a way of life for Native Americans. It’s not a sport. In 32 years of Restoration they now understand that we are a Tribe … we are a sovereign nation. That’s the difference today is that they understand that we are a Tribe and once they understand that we are sovereign it changes the whole deal.”

The commission’s vote was the culmination of a long-term Tribal Council and Tribal staff collaborative effort.

“This is a process that has been ongoing for many, many years,” said Tribal Council Vice Chair Jack Giffen Jr. “We attended many meetings to make this small portion of our sovereignty return to the Tribe. It’s an historic day; it’s a day that you can feel good about returning historical treaty rights to the Tribe. It’s just a great day when you accomplish something that many current and past council worked very hard on and attended many meetings to make happen.”


No effect on fisheries

According to the commission’s Agenda Item Summary, the new rules “preclude the potential for the harvest to have any biological impact or any measurable effect on recreational salmon and steelhead fisheries in the Willamette basin.”

For example, an estimated 42,000 hatchery spring Chinook salmon passed Willamette Falls in 2015 and typically more than 20,000 summer steelhead also pass upstream of the Falls each year.

“The harvest of 15 of these fish would have not have a measurable effect on fisheries upstream of this location,” the summary stated. “The effect on naturally produced salmon and steelhead populations should also be negligible since the harvest is limited to hatchery origin fish only.”

Tribal members issued a ceremonial harvest tag will be allowed to fish in an area immediately downstream of Willamette Falls that is currently closed to recreational angling and access by boats. Fishing will not be allowed within 75 feet of any of the three fish ladder entrances.

Fishing will be allowed during daylight hours from the shore or from a platform the Tribe will construct, and only traditional fishing methods, such as dip nets, will be allowed. The resulting catch can be used for Tribal ceremonial and cultural purposes, but fish or fish parts cannot be bartered or sold.

The Tribe also will be required to notify Oregon State Police and the Department of Fish & Wildlife two days in advance of fishing or accessing the platform. In addition, the Tribe will be required to report to the state within 30 days following the end date of the fishing season the number of unmarked wild salmon and steelhead captured and released.

“These proposed rules will provide an opportunity for Oregonians to see traditional salmon fishing methods in use at this historic site, and will provide the Tribe an important cultural link to its past,” stated the summary.

Leno, Giffen and Kennedy were accompanied by Tribal Council members Ed Pearsall, Tonya Gleason-Shepek and Jon A. George, as well as staff members Greene, Fish and Wildlife Program Manager Kelly Dirksen, Senior Staff Attorney Jenny Biesack, Natural Resources Department Manager Michael Wilson, Aquatic Biologist Bryan Fendall and Cultural Outreach Coordinator Bobby Mercier.

Commissioner Jason Atkinson of Jacksonville said that it was “very important for his son to see Grand Ronde on this platform.” He added that it was one of the most important votes he has cast as a commission member.

Commissioner Gregory Wolley of Portland commended the Grand Ronde Tribe for its spirit of cooperation, humility and forgiveness during the process.

The Chinookan-speaking Clackamas and Clo-We-Walla are the people of Willamette Falls who signed the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855. Along with their headmen, they were removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation. Tribal ancestral villages, burial sites and fishing grounds are at and around the Falls.

During the hearing, Kennedy acknowledged that descendants of the keepers of the Falls that included Chief Wachino were testifying before the commission.

The Tribe will begin fishing from the shore at Willamette Falls and construction of a platform within the coming months.

“This just solidified the fact that we are the people of the Willamette Falls,” said Leno. “All the other people are visitors.”


Sovereignty pursued

Ever since signing the consent decree in January 1987 with the state of Oregon that sacrificed Tribal fishing and hunting rights in return for support of its Reservation Plan, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde has slowly and persistently worked toward recovering those lost rights.

“Since 1988 and the return of part of the Tribe’s original Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde has worked tirelessly to restore its traditions and ways of life in places within its ceded lands that were significant for our ancestors,” Leno said before the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission.

“The Tribe has a proven record as a responsible steward of natural resources and to us that was always self-evident that the Tribe would be a good steward,” Greene said. “But for other people, perhaps, it wasn’t self-evident.

“With the Tribe’s record and the way that it has managed its Reservation, both in terms of timberlands and also in terms of wildlife and fish resources – take the fish weir for example and the studies we have done at Willamette Falls for lamprey – we are one of the best stewards of natural resources in western Oregon and people see that. Because of that, they respect what we are trying to achieve and then they cooperate with us.”

The effort to restore Tribal hunting and fishing rights received its first big victory in August 2007 when then-Tribal Council Chairman Chris Mercier signed the first state-Tribal proclamation with then-Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, which was the initial step toward obtaining Grand Ronde Tribal members increased access to game for ceremonial purposes.

In April 2008, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission granted ceremonial hunting rights to the Grand Ronde Tribe across the Trask Hunting Unit. In October 2009, the commission re-adopted the rule granting ceremonial hunting rights to the Tribe.

In May 2013, the Tribe held a First Salmon Ceremony at the McLean House in West Linn, marking the first time in more than 130 years that Tribal members held such a ceremony on the banks of the Willamette River. The salmon used during the ceremony was harvested by Tribal members through a modification to the Tribe’s Scientific Taking Permit. The ceremonial harvest was repeated in 2014 and ’15.

In September 2014, the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission unanimously approved the Grand Ronde Tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Management Plan, which gave the Tribe control over the take of fish and wildlife on its Reservation and trust lands.

In July 2015, the Grand Ronde Tribal Council approved issuing 46 Tribal Reservation hunting tags and set Tribal hunting seasons for the first time since Restoration.

And on Friday, April 22, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a ceremonial fishery at Willamette Falls for members of the Grand Ronde Tribe.

“I’m honored to work for the Tribe and to have a small part in carrying out this vision,” said Greene. “One of the things that I would emphasize is there are three elements here: One is the vision of Tribal Council in moving us along this road to recovering the Tribe’s historic rights in its ceded lands.

“The second thing is the great team effort by so many employees here at the Tribe, including Natural Resources, the Tribal Attorney’s Office and the Culture Department all working together to carry out that vision.

“And the third thing that I think is critical for this is at Tribal Council level and the staff level is developing those strong partnerships with the Governor’s Office and with ODFW that allow us to bring about these successes like we have here with the platform.”

George also complimented past and present Tribal leaders, as well as staff, on creating partnerships and expertly preparing Tribal representatives for meetings, such as the one held in Bandon.

“The old stories (Ikanum) tell how the Falls were created for the benefit of our people to fish there,” Archuleta said. “Willamette Falls has been one of our fishing sites since time immemorial. Even after relocation, our families continued to fish at the Falls and bring the salmon back to the Reservation for subsistence.”

“We kept coming to the Falls after treaty signing and removal to maintain our ways and provide for our people,” Leno said. “The Indian agent’s passbook for Grand Ronde, held at the Oregon Historical Society, documents our ancestors leaving the Reservation to return to their fishing sites at Willamette Falls.

“While other people traveled to the Falls or came to visit and trade, our ancestors were the people of the Falls. Fishing at the Falls was central to our life and culture. Today, we maintain an ongoing connection to the Falls. We harvest lamprey as our ancestors did. We also work closely with government agencies, businesses and organizations that are connected to Willamette Falls.

“This rule and our fishing at the Falls will have a profound impact on the Grand Ronde people. It will connect our children and grandchildren with the spirits of their ancestors.”

On May 6, the Tribe will hold its annual First Salmon Ceremony near the Falls.

“We will honor our traditional subsistence like our ancestors did before us and we will be able to pass this on to our future generations,” said Archuleta.