Tribal Government & News

Tribe blesses site of new Willamette Falls fishing platform

By Danielle Frost

WEST LINN -- During a beautiful fall afternoon, with blue sky and the roar of rushing water in the background, a contingent of Tribal Council, Tribal members and Tribal employees participated in a ceremony that blessed the future site of a fishing platform at Willamette Falls on Tuesday, Sept. 4.

Building a platform at the historic site in the Tribe’s ceded lands has been a goal since Restoration, and in negotiations since the Tribe was granted ceremonial fishing rights at the falls in 2016.

“This is a monumental day,” Tribal Council member Jack Giffen Jr. said. “One of the things our past Elders taught us is if you want something, you never give up.”

Ceremonial fishing rights were lost in the 1980s as part of a compromise when the Tribe was seeking support for its Reservation Plan following 1983’s Restoration.

Rights were restored by the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission in April 2016 after years of gradually shifting public opinion and countless hours of work by Tribal employees and council members. The commission ruling allows for Tribal harvest of hatchery spring Chinook salmon and/or hatchery summer steelhead for ceremonial purposes with a limit of no more than 15 per year.

Since then, the Tribe has been requesting to build a platform for the fishing. Now that the Oregon Department of State Lands has given approval, a platform will be installed as soon as safely possible, Engineering & Public Works Manager Jesse White said.

“Work is underway today to get the parts fabricated,” White said. “The platform will be installed as soon as practicable in accordance with all applicable processes, while accounting for all needed safety measures.”

The Tribe’s connection to the falls dates back to pre-contact times. Willamette Falls, or “ikanum” in Chinuk, is within the ancestral homelands of the Chinookan-speaking Clackamas and Clo-We-Walla peoples relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation after signing of the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855.

Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy, who served on Tribal Councils in the early 1980s, has described giving up fishing and hunting rights as akin to being held hostage, having to choose between those or support for a Reservation Plan that would re-establish a land base for the Tribe.

“What we are doing here today is very important for our people,” Kennedy said. “I was a direct descendent of the people who once fished here. I can’t say how [emotional] this makes me feel. … We are strong, resilient and doing the best that we know how to do as an honorable people and respectful of this beautiful fishing area our creator gave us. … Today, we are moving forward and getting the fish returned to us. … We all stand here believing and hoping.”

Other Tribal Council members in attendance were Michael Langley, Secretary Jon A. George, Brenda Tuomi, Kathleen George and Lisa Leno.

After an invocation by Kennedy, Cultural Advisor Bobby Mercier led the blessing ceremony in Chinuk Wawa, followed by singing and drumming with Cultural Education Specialist Brian Krehbiel, Jon A. George, Cultural Resources Manager David Harrelson, Cultural Education Coordinator Jordan Mercier, Tribal Elder Greg Archuleta, Interpretive Coordinator Travis Stewart, Nicolas Atanacio, Prevention Coordinator Cristina Lara and Leno participating.

“We have been working toward this for a long time,” Bobby Mercier said. “Our generation may be fishing here for a few years, but our children and their children will do so forever. This is another thing we are leaving them. We are giving them something we didn’t get to grow up with. I am thankful my kids and grandkids will be able to come here to fish. This is so powerful.”

Other Tribal staff in attendance included General Manager David Fullerton, Tribal Attorney Rob Greene, Staff Attorney Jennifer Biesack and Tribal Council Chief of Staff Stacia Hernandez.    

“I want to give a lot of thanks to our partners at the state for working with us on this,” Greene said. “They looked closely at it and put a lot of work into it.”

After the ceremony at the top of the falls was complete, Fullerton, Atanacio, Jordan Mercier, Bobby Mercier, Jon George, Archuleta, Stewart, Krehbiel and Lara made their way to the location where the platform will be built and conducted a private ceremony. Kathleen George and Harrelson watched from nearby.

“The feeling I get is almost indescribable,” Kathleen George said. “It has been the same feeling I have gotten since the first time I saw the falls. There is such a deep connection and it always feels like we are being welcomed back. It is a place of power for Oregon and for our Tribe.”