Tribal Government & News

Tribe intensifies push to overturn consent decree

By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde is intensifying its push to overturn the 1980s consent decree that limits Tribal members’ ability to hunt and fish within their ancestral homelands.

In November, Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy published an op-ed in The Oregonian in which she called the consent decree “unjust.”

On the legislative front, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate on Nov. 1, 2021, that would allow the Grand Ronde and Siletz Tribes to renegotiate their consent decrees with the state of Oregon. An identical bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader and co-sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici on Dec. 23, 2021.

Kennedy testified in support of Merkley’s bill on Feb. 16 before the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee and also expressed her support for a similar bill affecting the Siletz Tribe. The House bill still awaits a hearing.

Recently, the Tribe posted three three-minute videos on its governmental website at featuring Communications Director Sara Thompson, former Tribal Council Chair Reyn Leno and Cultural Advisor Bobby Mercier discussing the restrictive consent decree and how it affects Tribal members. The videos can be viewed by clicking on the History & Culture tab and then Removing the Consent Decree.

All of this, however, begs the question for the average Grand Ronde Tribal member: What is the consent decree and how did it come about?

After the Grand Ronde Tribe was restored to federal recognition on Nov. 22, 1983, another arduous task faced Tribal leaders – obtaining land.

“While we realize it is unrealistic to acquire a land base in the total acreage of our former 69,120-acre Reservation, it has been our goal, nevertheless, to strive for enough land so our people will have a reasonable chance to develop a viable economy,” wrote the interim Tribal Council in its final report to the membership in the April 1985 Smoke Signals. “Like our ancestors, we feel that land is sacred and important to us; what is an Indian without land? So we would hope and pray that we have laid the groundwork for the Tribe to acquire a homeland where we, too, like our ancestors, can make our living, gather our food, build our homes and raise our children and grandchildren; and, yes, be laid to rest.”

Tribal leaders initiated a Reservation planning process to create a plan that would be submitted to the Secretary of the Interior. The Grand Ronde Restoration Act required the Secretary submit a Reservation Plan to Congress by Nov.  22, 1985.

The Restoration Act also said that land for a future Grand Ronde Reservation would come from public lands in Polk, Yamhill and Tillamook counties that were administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

In January 1986, Tribal Council Chairman Mark Mercier announced that the Tribe had finished a final draft of the Grand Ronde Reservation Plan, which had been submitted to the Department of the Interior on time on Nov. 22, 1985.

 Mercier, along with fellow Tribal Council members Kathryn Harrison and Merle Leno, started presenting the final draft to public and private agencies in Oregon.

However, it wasn’t smooth sailing. The Tribe had to work with local timber companies to address their concerns regarding the supply of timber, export issues and management of timber lands.

In the April 1986 Smoke Signals, Mercier also reported spending an afternoon with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials to review a hunting and fishing consent decree. “There will be more to report later,” he wrote.

In May 1986, Mercier reported that negotiations were continuing with ODFW and “Tribal Council hopes to reach a final agreement.”

On May 29, 1986, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission held a public hearing in Portland regarding the proposed hunting and fishing agreement between the Tribe and state. After some positive and some “very negative” testimony, the commission postponed a decision.

Mercier reported back to the Tribal membership that opposition to the Reservation Plan was reaching “hysterical proportions” and encouraged Tribal members to write letters to the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

In June 1986, Mercier said an agreement with ODFW was almost complete.

“We have finished negotiations on this key issue,” Mercier wrote. “Essentially, the agreement will allow the Tribe to issue elk, deer and bear tags to Tribal members who wish to hunt or fish in designated areas during state-declared seasons.

“The agreement set aside future litigation and claims by the Grand Ronde Tribe for hunting and fishing rights. The council sought to leave this issue out of the Reservation Plan until the bill was passed. The council felt that a land resource base was the key. Hunting and fishing was an issue that could have been taken up at a later date.

“In order to establish a strong legal case for hunting and fishing, a great deal of legal research must be done. There was too little time and money to carry out this research before the plan was to be submitted.

“The state wanted the issue to be put to rest and pressed for this agreement, which will ultimately be called a consent decree. This consent decree will be binding both on the state and the Tribe.”

The commission was scheduled to approve the agreement on Aug. 22, 1986, but tabled the decision until its Oct. 9, 1986, meeting “for reasons unknown,” Mercier reported.

Meanwhile, Mercier, Leno and Harrison met with the Yamhill County Sportsman’s Association on Sept. 29, 1986, to update it on the Reservation Plan and hunting and fishing agreement. “This meeting cleared up some points of misinformation,” he reported.

Finally, on Nov. 14, 1986, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the consent decree. “It took a lot of hard work for this to be a success, and I’d like to thank everyone who was involved in the negotiations for their time and effort,” Mercier said.

It was officially signed by state, Tribal and federal representatives on Nov. 29, Dec. 1 and 2, 1986.

It wasn’t the only compromise the Tribe had to make to get its Reservation Plan approved. Grand Ronde also agreed with timber interests not to export logs and compete for public timber on nearby lands for 20 years. The agreement ended in late 2008.

On Jan. 12, 1987, a U.S. District Court judge formally signed the consent decree, making it official.

“This is a major step in getting the Grand Ronde Reservation established,” Mercier reported.

“I was on Tribal Council at that time,” former Tribal Council member Bradley Kowing recalls. “I remember attending meetings in Portland with the state of Oregon fish and game folks. We had lots of opposition. … We did the best we could to get some fishing and hunting rights.

“We were up against most county commissioners and many city councilors. They used the old ‘We are not responsible for what our ancestors did to the Indians.’ ”

Under the decree, Tribal members’ ability to hunt and fish is confined to Reservation land and nearby areas, such as the Trask unit. Tribal members cannot hunt or fish in culturally significant areas, such as southern Oregon, or during appropriate times of the year for ceremonial purposes. To read the entire consent decree, go to on the Internet.

Tribal leaders, as stated in the recently posted videos, consider the consent decree to be a gray cloud hanging over Grand Ronde’s sovereignty.

Two months after the consent decree was signed, Rep. Les AuCoin and Sen. Mark Hatfield started introducing legislation in Congress that would eventually return 9,811 acres to the Grand Ronde Tribe. On Sept. 9, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Grand Ronde Reservation Act into law.

Grand Ronde Tribal members had a land base back, but, as Kennedy said during her recent Senate testimony, it was a bargain made “with a gun to our head.”