Tribal Government & News

Tribe fighting efforts to rewrite history of Willamette Falls fishery

03.15.2021 Dean Rhodes History, State government


By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde is once again rebutting claims by Columbia Plateau Tribes, particularly the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, regarding historical usage of the Willamette Falls fishery by Native American Tribes.

In November 2020, the Umatilla Tribe sent Gov. Kate Brown and other officials a document titled “Traditional Use Study of Willamette Falls and the Lower Columbia River by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation” in that Tribe’s efforts to get Grand Ronde to dismantle its ceremonial fishing platform and prevent it from exercising its cultural practices at the falls.

In response, the Grand Ronde Tribe once again turned to Dr. Stephen Dow Beckham, who wrote a 205-page analysis of the Umatilla document.

Beckham’s assessment said that the Umatilla study is filled with errors of fact, faulty conclusions based on misunderstanding of primary and secondary sources, and accepting as “truth” virtually anything that is in print.

“In sum, CTUIR’s study is intellectually dishonest,” Beckham said.

Beckham, a professor emeritus of history at Lewis & Clark College, had previously prepared a 160-page report commissioned by the Grand Ronde Tribe in 2018 that rebutted assertions by the Columbia Plateau Tribes that their ancestors also fished at the falls and supported the Grand Ronde Tribe’s claims to Willamette Falls.

He called Columbia Plateau Tribes’ claims to the Willamette Falls fishery a “modern-day discovery of opportunity” in 2018.

In a March 11 letter, Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy said that since the Grand Ronde Tribe’s Restoration in 1983, it has not only had to confront a legacy of colonialism and racism, but “regrettably, we have also had to resist the efforts of some Tribes to move beyond their lands and deprive Grand Ronde of its rights and history.”

Kennedy is scheduled to meet with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in a Tribal Government Willamette Falls executive session meeting on Thursday, March 18.

“Much of the Umatilla Report is ‘fact-free history’ ” Beckham says. “A close analysis of the sources cited confirms the author glossed her narrative from unreliable secondary sources, failed to check the primary sources alleged to be the foundation for the information, and accepted as fact information that was wrong or of dubious authenticity.”

The author, Dr. Jennifer Karson Engum, works for the Umatilla Tribe’s Cultural Resources Protection Program. She earned a Ph.D. in anthropology in 2007 from the University of Texas at Austin, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In his summary, Beckham rebuts six major claims made by the Umatilla report.

  1. “Use of Willamette Falls area was not exclusive to any single Tribe or band.” Beckham says the statement is false and does not address the “extensive” linguistic and ethno-historical information recorded since 1806 that identifies the falls and its vicinity as the aboriginal homeland of the Clackamas, Clowewalla, Multnomah, Tualatin and Molalla Tribes. “The Umatilla Report fails to provide any evidence that its antecedent Tribes and bands possessed a single village or exercised any subsistence activities west of Celilo Falls prior to 1995.”
  2. “(Umatilla) members maintained uninterrupted use and exercised treaty rights in the area which use continues today.” Beckham calls the statement “false” and cites the fact that in 1941 none of 35 Umatilla Tribal Elders reported any use or exercise of treaty rights west of Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. He also cites a 2015 Umatilla-published atlas that did not identify any resource uses or locations west of Celilo Falls.
  3. “The (Umatilla) possess abundant oral histories on our traditional use at Willamette Falls and the Lower Columbia River area.” Beckham again does not mince words, calling the statement false and “based on heavily redacted modern oral histories.” He also cites the fact that the Umatilla sought no settlement from the U.S. government for any land other than on the eastern Columbia Plateau.
  4. “The Cayuse people had significant contact and clear cultural and historical ties including intermarriage with the Molalla Tribe of the Willamette Valley.” Beckham says the alleged linguistic affiliation of the Cayuse and Molalla languages has been “resoundingly and consistently rejected by linguistic scholars since the 1960s.”
  5. “The presence of the (Umatilla) people increased during the fur trade and mission era, which brought additional (Umatilla) members to the Willamette Valley and increased use at Willamette Falls.” Beckham fact-checks that statement as false as well, citing an 1839 Hudson’s Bay Co. census of Fort Vancouver Indians that identified no Umatilla Indians. He does concede there was one Walla Walla youth who briefly attended school on French Prairie in the early 1840s. “School attendance by one youth does not document Tribal presence and treaty rights,” he says.
  6. “The Cayuse Five trial, during which Tribal headmen were tried and convicted in Oregon City, adjacent to Willamette Falls, for the deaths that took place at the Whitman Mission (near Walla Walla, Wash.) created deep and unresolved trauma that adds to CTUIR’s connection to the area of Willamette Falls.” Beckham said the Cayuse men were tried in Oregon City because it was the capital of the Oregon Territory and the location of the territorial court. “The trial in no way buttressed the reserved treaty rights of fishing, hunting, digging roots, gathering berries or grazing livestock for the CTUIR in western Oregon.”

“Such compelling findings require making Dr. Beckham’s complete report available to officials and the public,” Kennedy said. “Dr. Beckham’s analysis, and his citations to a plethora of well-regarded and widely known materials, ultimately speaks for itself.”

Kennedy’s letter and Beckham’s report have been posted on the Willamette Falls & Landing Heritage Area’s website at

“The biggest hurdle ahead is recognizing Tribal sovereignty and the federally recognized treaties that apply to the area,” said retiring Executive Director Siobhan Taylor, who previously worked for the Grand Ronde Tribe as Public Affairs director and currently is chair of the Tribe’s Editorial Board, which oversees Smoke Signals. “Make no mistake, this is in the ceded homelands of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. And the treaty that applies is the Willamette Valley Treaty.”