Tribal Government & News

ODFW approves MOA expanding Tribal hunting and fishing rights

08.14.2023 Danielle Harrison State government, Culture, Natural resources, Tribal Council
Tribal Council Secretary Michael Langley and Tribal Council member Kathleen George hug in celebration after the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission voted to pass a memorandum of agreement with the Tribe during the commission’s meeting in Salem on Friday, Aug. 4. The agreement will expand the Tribe’s ceremonial and cultural hunting and fishing areas on off-Reservation and non-trust lands and allow the Tribe to co-manage this for its members with the state. (Photo by Michelle Alaimo/Smoke Signals)


By Danielle Harrison

Smoke Signals editor

Almost 37 years after Grand Ronde was forced to sign a consent decree with the state of Oregon restricting its hunting and fishing rights in order to get its Reservation Plan approved, some of those rights have been returned.

On Friday, Aug. 4, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission approved a memorandum of agreement with the Tribe that will significantly expand its ceremonial and cultural hunting and fishing areas on off-Reservation lands, and allow the Tribe to manage this for its members in coordination with the state.

The agreement will allow Tribal members to harvest finfish, lamprey, shellfish and crustaceans, mammals and birds in the Wilson, Trask, Willamette, Stott Mountain and Santiam wildlife management units, taking pressure off the much-used Trask Management Area, which Tribal members compared its opening day to a Friday afternoon traffic jam in Portland.

The approval was a 4-3 vote, which occurred after a sometimes tense, marathon meeting that stretched more than five hours with testimony from those both in favor and against the proposal. When the vote was announced, Grand Ronde Tribal members cheered and some began spontaneously drumming and dancing.

“This is elation and gratitude,” an emotional Tribal Council member Kathleen George said. “It’s a long, long dream of our Elders that has come true. We thank the commissioners who had the courage to see what this was really about. … This will help right a dark and unfair chapter in Oregon’s history.”

Tribal Council Secretary Michael Langley said his grandfather, who also was Tribal Council secretary in the 1930s, felt very strongly about the consent decree but also recognized it was crucial to have Reservation land again.

“This is huge,” he said. “This is joy. … For me, this is what my grandfather imagined, knowing he wouldn’t live to see it happen. Now, we did it.”

The Tribe’s agreement was originally up for consideration at ODFW’s June meeting in Newport but was postponed after other Tribes – Warm Springs and Umatilla – voiced concerns that it would interfere with their treaty rights. They were joined in their objections by the Nez Perce and Yakama Tribes in Washington.

The Aug. 4 hearing began with Tribal Fish & Wildlife Program Manager Kelly Dirksen, Natural Resources Department Manager Colby Drake, Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy and ODFW Acting Land Resources Manager Davia Palmeri explaining the proposal in detail to commissioners.

“I was at the June meeting when this agreement was postponed,” Kennedy said. “I have a hopeful heart that our words today will be received in a good way. These agreements that other Tribes have with the commission have not undergone the scrutiny and revisions that we have. We have had several meetings and have made concessions on the geographic area, ensuring that there was no overlapping boundaries, and we included that any other Tribe’s rights would not be affected. We are good partners. … As we all know, the future is ahead of us and that affects our children. So what we do today matters for them. For myself, hunting and fishing is very important as a way of life, it is how we live.”

Palmeri discussed the various revisions the agreement with Grand Ronde had undergone, and said ODFW staff recommended its approval as it had before with four other Tribes in western Oregon. She also noted that this furthers government-to-government relationships between Tribes and the state.

“The commission's mission is to protect and enhance wildlife, and their habitats for the use and enjoyment by present and future generations,” she said. “This mission aligns with growing our partnership with Tribal governments, and their knowledge of maintaining functioning habitats for fish and wildlife. It is to our benefit as a state to support them.”

The agreement is limited to subsistence and ceremonial harvest. The Tribe will not be able to implement any commercial harvest opportunities.

“The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Grand Ronde have a shared interest in how fish and wildlife, and their habitats, are managed in Oregon and seek to proactively and voluntarily cooperate to establish a framework under which Grand Ronde’s members may participate in hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering off-reservation in a culturally relevant way,” an ODFW background summary states.

Representatives of Tribes that opposed the agreement reiterated that their stance hasn’t changed.

Umatilla Tribal Board of Trustees member Corinne Sams said that the state had failed in its Tribal consultation efforts. In addition to serving on the board, she also chairs the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.  

“I urge you to take no action on the proposed MOA,” she said. “The broad scope of this agreement has a real potential to affect our treaty rights. … The right to take fish includes a right to cross private property to access those areas. It is also well-documented that the treaty Tribes have historic and current close ties to the Willamette Valley, including fishing at Willamette Falls, and the lower Columbia River. … We are astonished and frustrated that neither ODFW nor the Grand Ronde Tribe contacted any of the Treaty Tribes while the MOA was being negotiated.” 

Warm Springs Tribal Chairman Jonathan Smith expressed similar sentiments.

“I’m in opposition to the Grand Ronde MOA and urge you to take no action because it is premature to do so,” he said. “We have raised objections because this agreement could affect our ability to hunt, fish and gather.”

In an earlier letter to the commission, Smith said that the Grand Ronde Tribe also “refuses to acknowledge our sovereign and treaty-reserved interests at Willamette Falls.”

“Our ancestors have fished, hunted and gathered around Willamette Falls and the surrounding area since time immemorial, and our members continue to do so,” he said. “There can be no doubt that the Willamette Falls area is one of our treaty-reserved, usual and accustomed areas where our members fish at sites, which have been passed down through generations for subsistence and ceremonial harvest purposes.”

Kennedy and other Tribal Council members firmly maintain that any claims of a lack of consultation or potential treaty violations aren’t factual.

Additionally, the agreement states that no other Tribe’s treaty rights will be affected and that the agreement is limited to sustenance and ceremonial harvest.

“No additional Tribal legal or treaty entitlement is created, conveyed, implied or diminished, nor is any existing agreement, treaty or court decree modified by the adoption of these rules or the above referenced Memorandum of Agreement,” the agreement states. “Nothing in the above referenced Memorandum of Agreement shall be construed as affirming, recognizing or limiting the rights or claims of any other Tribe within the geographic scope of that agreement.”

Tribal Council member Jon A. George dances as the Warrior Song is sung to celebrate the Tribe’s memorandum of agreement being passed by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission during the commission’s meeting in Salem on Friday, Aug. 4. (Photo by Michelle Alaimo/Smoke Signals)

All nine Tribal Council members attended the hearing, and approximately 90 Tribal and staff members.

Many testified before the commission, including Elder and past Tribal Council Chairman Reyn Leno, Cultural Resources Department Manager David Harrelson, Cultural Advisor Bobby Mercier, Tribal member Jade Unger, Cultural Policy Analyst Greg Archuleta, Higher Education Manager Bryan Langley and Tribal Lobbyist Justin Martin.

Tribal Council members who testified included Kennedy, Langley, Kathleen George, Jon A. George, Michael Cherry, Lisa Leno and Vice Chair Chris Mercier.

“I’m in my 18th year of doing this and I don’t recall ever seeing this kind of opposition like I’ve seen today,” Mercier said. “I came here expecting more of a celebratory environment. But if people feel the need to speak their peace and if it’s in opposition, they have the right to do that. However, I do feel part of my testimony has to be in response to a lot of things that you’ve heard here today. Nothing in this agreement affects any treaty rights and additional changes to the agreement make clear there wouldn’t be an impact in the Columbia River.”

Grand Ronde has been working for years to have its hunting and fishing rights restored after being forced into a consent decree with the state to get its Reservation approved. During the Tribe’s efforts to secure Reservation lands, the only path forward at the time was to sign the decree.

The Tribe’s Natural Resources Department and the state are working cooperatively to finalize details of the agreement and that will be published in Smoke Signals when it is complete. For more information, contact or 503-879-2424.

  Graphic by Samuel Briggs III/Smoke Signals