Former Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has been busy since she left office in 2023. She’s completed teaching fellowships at Harvard and the University of Chicago. Now, she’ll lead a regional organization seeking to reopen public access to the second largest waterfall by volume in the United States — a major cultural spot for area Native nations — for the first time in nearly two centuries.

Dammed and smothered along its banks by industrialization, Willamette Falls is virtually inaccessible. Few have heard of the stunning natural wonder located just outside Portland, Ore. The Willamette Falls Trust is working to change that — with Oregon's former governor leading the way.

On June 4, the Trust announced Brown as president. She stepped into her new position on May 28.

“We had a pretty strong slate of candidates and Kate rose to the top, just because of her knowledge of Indian Country, and Oregon Indian country especially,” said Robert Kentta, former chair of the board for the Willamette Falls Trust, treasurer for the tribal council of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Trust's Siletz delegate.

The Willamette Falls Trust is a nonprofit organization made up of local, regional and tribal leaders that has been working to create public access to the falls since 2015, through its Willamette Falls Inter-Tribal Public Access Project. (Disclosure: Nika Bartoo-Smith’s father, Zeke Smith, is a member of the Trust’s board of directors.) In June 2023, the Trust announced an agreement with Portland General Electric, which owns and operates the dam at the falls, to study the feasibility of creating a public access project on an island on the west side of the falls.

Board and staff members at the Trust told Underscore News that it looks like the project will move forward.

A rendered image of the Trust's vision for public access at Willamette Falls. (Courtesy of Willamette Falls Trust)

When former Executive Director Andrew Mason announced his departure in January, the Trust began a nationwide search for a new leader, now called president. Mason will stay on as president emeritus while Brown settles in.

As president, Brown will help guide the vision of the Trust, working to restore public access to Willamette Falls for the first time in over 150 years. She will work closely with the board of directors, which is made up of four member tribes with important ties to the falls: the Confederated Tribes and Bands of Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Additional Native nations in the region have important ties to the falls, including the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the Niimiipuu, or Nez Perce Tribe. Neither are currently member tribes of the Trust, though Grand Ronde was a member before it withdrew in 2021.

Across the river, Grand Ronde owns the decommissioned Blue Heron Paper Mill, directly adjacent to the falls, and is working on its own public access project there.

Willamette Falls has been a culturally and historically significant gathering site for Native nations in the region since time immemorial. As such, Native leadership is essential to driving the vision of the trust. Architectural mockups of the design for the public access project envision Native teaching gardens, gathering spaces and direct access to the river.

“You have tribal leadership within the board and it’s a very active tribal leadership committee,” said Kentta. “I feel totally comfortable with Kate understanding and promoting tribal perspectives. She gets it. Not only from her political career, but also her training as a lawyer.”

For those who expected an Indigenous leader to take the role vacated by Mason in January, the decision to hire former Gov. Brown comes as a surprise. For others, it makes perfect sense.

“Willamette Falls has been sacred for Pacific Northwest Tribes since time immemorial, providing food, spiritual nourishment and community gathering space,” Davis ‘Yellowash’ Washines, Willamette Falls Trust Board Chair and Government Relations Liaison for the Yakama Nation, said in a press release. “After conducting a nationwide search, we’re convinced we’ve found the right leader to continue our work to restore the Falls for all.”

Brown talked with Underscore about her plans for her new role.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

In her new role as president of Willamette Falls Trust, former Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, pictured here on May 31, 2024, will facilitate the Trust’s mission and execution of the Inter-Tribal Public Access Project. (Photo by Jarrette Werk of Underscore News / Report for America)

Nika Bartoo-Smith (Underscore News + ICT): As an organization rooted in Native leadership, this role opening up at the Willamette Falls Trust seemed to be an incredible opportunity for the Trust to benefit from the leadership of a Native president. We also understand that there were other finalists for this position that were Indigenous. Can you tell us a little bit about why you are best suited for the role?

Kate Brown: I was really honored to be offered this role. I have a long history of working with the tribes in Oregon. The selection committee was tribally led. And I think what was compelling was my work with the tribes in Oregon — my passion for making Oregon a better place for everyone. And the work that I led while I was governor around racial justice.

Throughout my tenure as governor, my focus was to center the voices of Black and brown people, both from a policy perspective and from a budget perspective. And obviously, from a leadership perspective. That work really came to fruition after the unfortunate murder of George Floyd, when we created the Racial Justice Council.

It was also the work that I've done with Oregon tribes in particular. My first legislative appointment over 30 years ago was to the Legislative Commission on Indian Services. I loved getting to know the federally recognized tribes of Oregon. We worked very closely on many bills that I hope set the tone of repairing historic wrongs.

I loved the legislation we passed to allow tribal elders to teach Native languages in our schools. As you know, languages are disappearing. But to enable tribal elders to teach in elementary school without having to get a teaching certificate is extraordinary. It’s also a way to teach all of Oregon's children more about Indian culture and the tribes here.

I also appointed some of the first tribal members to boards and commissions. One I’m most proud of frankly, is Chuck Sams, now Director Sams, to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. He was Oregon's first tribal member appointed to that council. Now he’s directing the National Park Service, which is a great use of his skills.

So all of that work, to center tribal voices in my career, makes me well suited to lead and work on this project.

Karina Brown (Underscore News): Willamette Falls itself is a traditional cultural property for tribes in this area. The Willamette Falls Trust is really guided by the mission, vision and values of the board, which has strong Indigenous leadership. In your role as president, how will you share power with the board and with the tribal affairs director?

Kate Brown: I work on behalf of the tribal leadership council and the board of directors. So it is my hope that our vision and mission are aligned. But it is my job to implement their vision for the project.

This is a sacred site; it has been since time immemorial. It is a place of spiritual nourishment, it is a place of community gathering. We can't put things back the way they were. But I hope, working together, we can create a place of healing and gathering. A way to reconnect to the river, and hopefully help restore the natural environment that was destroyed by 180 years of industrialization, which really shut off access to this amazing and extraordinary sight.

Willamette Falls is the second largest waterfall by volume in the United States. Its horseshoe shape spans 1,600 feet across the river and rises 42 feet high. Because of colonization, public access to the falls has been nearly impossible for over 150 years. (Photo by Jarrette Werk of Underscore News / Report for America)

Nika Bartoo-Smith: The Trust’s tribal affairs director position has been only temporarily filled since last fall. When will that position be permanently filled? What kind of power and decision-making authority does the tribal affairs director hold?

Kate Brown: That is one of my top priorities: to make sure we get that position filled. I see that role as being key to the work of the Trust and, frankly, to the success and vision of this project.

Karina Brown: This is a massive project that combines navigating environmental issues, complicated policy and permitting and correcting the mistakes of Oregon's racist past. How has your experience as governor prepared you for a role like this?

Kate Brown: As one of my last acts [as governor], we signed the Klamath Dam removal agreement. And key to that, honestly, was the voice of the Confederated Tribes of the Klamath. It made me realize that their tribes, their voices weren't being heard. And I worked very hard to lift up their voices in that world. And as you know, one, and now two, three, and four are coming out this year [Copco No. 1, John C. Boyle and Iron Gate].

The other project that I was engaged with was the Columbia Basin Project. Oregon was a plaintiff in that work. It was my job to push the Biden administration on moving forward on dam removal on the Lower Snake River. That agreement was just signed in February of this year. I'm very pleased that they have centered all of the Pacific Northwest tribes in the basin. February wouldn't have happened but for me pushing and screaming, and my sense of urgency there.

And then the other project that I think is relevant was the work that my team and I did to reach agreement on the Rose Quarter Improvement Project. The Black community was unhappy with ODOT [Oregon Department of Transportation], with its plan and vision for that project. Working with Shannon Singleton, we brought people together to reach an agreement: city, state, Metro, county and members of the Black community including the leadership of the Albina Vision Trust. We have now received significant resources from our federal partners, led by Congressman [Earl] Blumenauer, Sen. [Ron] Wyden and Sen. [Jeff] Merkeley. So that was a half-billion-dollar investment that the feds made, but that only happened because we were able to bring people together.

Nika Bartoo-Smith: What is your experience working with the four Native nations who are currently members of the trust: the Confederated Tribes and Bands of Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs?

Kate Brown: I've worked with Yakama tangentially on the Columbia River Basin Project. In terms of Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, during my tenure as governor, I set the precedent of visiting with tribes on a regular basis. I have worked with them extensively, specifically following the flooding of the Umatilla Basin [in 2020].

In terms of Warm Springs, it was Warm Springs tribal members that came to me about both the tribal elder bill and the elimination of the S-word in Oregon's geographic names. It was two Warm Springs tribal members who are no longer with us that started that work. And I have continued to work with Warm Springs over time.

At Siletz, I’ve worked with Chair Pigsley. She's obviously a leading force in Indian Country and Oregon. I’ve worked with her and her tribe for many years.

Nika Bartoo-Smith: During your tenure as governor, the Department of State Lands approved a fishing platform here at the falls for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. That was after both Grand Ronde and tribes opposed to the platform made their case directly to you. PGE is now locked in litigation with the state of Oregon and Grand Ronde over Grand Ronde’s fishing platform at the falls. How does your history in this conflict affect your role now?

Kate Brown: I think the trust is well placed to work collaboratively with local, state, federal and tribal partners to create a public access project that is tribally led. And that's what I hope to see moving forward.

Karina Brown: Grand Ronde withdrew from the Trust in 2021. The tribe owns land across the falls from where we’re standing now and plans its own public access project there. How will you manage this complicated relationship with Grand Ronde?

Kate Brown: As I've mentioned, I've worked with the nine federally recognized tribes over my 30-year tenure in public service. With that tribe specifically, I served on the Spirit Mountain Community Fund for nearly a decade. I have good relationships with tribal members, and there remains a seat at the Willamette Falls Trust for them, should they decide to participate.

A panel that includes Grand Ronde tribal chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy, second from right, addresses the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission at a meeting held in Salem on Aug. 4, 2023. (Photo by Karina Brown / Underscore News)

Nika Bartoo-Smith: Some of the Trust’s member tribes opposed Grand Ronde’s recent agreement with the state of Oregon over its ability to issue hunting and fishing licenses to tribal members. Tribes opposed say the agreement could interfere with their treaty rights. Grand Ronde says the agreement doesn’t apply to land at Willamette Falls. What’s your take on the meaning of the agreement here at the falls?

Kate Brown: I'll just say I know that matter is in litigation. And I feel confident that the Oregon courts will be able to sort this out in a way that respects tribal sovereignty throughout the state.

Karina Brown: As governor, you had a lot of experience leading during very polarizing situations. You faced backlash for your policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic, over the recent surge in homelessness and over how you negotiated for the withdrawal of officers guarding the federal courthouse in Portland during the protests of 2020. And that's just to name a few things you faced. How will you accomplish the work of the Trust when you have such a cemented reputation, both positive and negative, in the minds of Oregonians?

Kate Brown: So my approach to problem solving — throughout my tenure and my life — has been to put aside political differences and do what's right for Oregonians. And I will continue to do that. Even though folks might disagree with me on particular policy issues, folks know that I treat everyone with dignity and respect. They know I listened and I learned, and that my goal is always to create situations where everybody feels like they are a winner.

Nika Bartoo-Smith: How do you think it could transform our region to have meaningful public access at Willamette Falls?

Kate Brown: This is a sacred site. Very few people even know that it exists. And that is counter to Oregon values. Our coastline is publicly accessible. This should be one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon. It would give you extraordinary river access. To come and see this and feel the mist and be connected to the river: I think it will create a spirit of hope for the future — that we can restore this area environmentally.

I hope it will be a place of education as well. Oregon has some bad history. And it's important that all of us learn from that history, if we want a better future for everyone.

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...

As managing editor, Karina guides Underscore’s mission to illuminate the strength and vibrancy of Indigenous communities as well as the challenges they face. Passionate about reporting that advances...

Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....