and Nika Bartoo-Smith Underscore News + ICT

Two tribes in Oregon made historic agreements with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on Friday that affirm the rights of their members to hunt, fish, trap and gather under tribal, rather than state licenses. The agreements apply to subsistence and ceremonial activities, not commercial enterprises.

“There will be a shift where trial members already participating under a state framework will instead participate under a tribal framework,” Davia Palmeri, acting deputy director for fish and wildlife programs at ODFW, said at the June 16 meeting.

Four tribes now operate under such agreements — The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians (CLUSI), Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians and the Coquille Indian Tribe.

Siletz Chairman Delores Pigsley compared the moment to one in 1977, when Siletz regained federal recognition of its sovereignty, over two decades after termination.

“This agreement is probably as meaningful as restoration itself,” Chairman Pigsley told the commissioners.

Delores Pigsley, Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, told commissioners at a June 16 meeting of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife that the Siletz tribal government’s ability to oversee hunting and fishing licensing for tribal members is especially important within the context of the consent decree the tribe had to sign in order to regain a reservation after Termination. “We were told: if you don't agree, you will not have a reservation,” she said. “So it was what we had to do to get a small land base.” (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

ODFW commissioners said their goal is to forge similar agreements with all nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon. But a fifth tribal nation found out the day before the meeting that its agreement would not be brought forward.

ODFW Director Curt Melcher removed from Friday’s agenda the agency’s negotiated agreement with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, due to objections from other tribes. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs submitted objections to the Grand Ronde agreement. Representatives for both Umatilla and Warm Springs also testified in opposition to the Grand Ronde’s agreement at Friday’s meeting.

At the meeting, Melcher told Grand Ronde Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy that the commission would bring Grand Ronde’s agreement up for approval at its next meeting in August.

“I understand your disappointment,” Melcher told Kennedy.

Later, Melcher told Underscore he is committed to that plan.

“Barring a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake or any other ginormous catastrophe, yeah, we’ll have it there,” Melcher said.

Grand Ronde agreement delayed

Objections raised by both Austin Smith Jr., general manager of the Warm Springs branch of natural resources and Corinne Sams, an elected member of the Umatilla board of trustees and vice chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, foreground the two tribes’ treaty rights to fish at usual and accustomed places, including Willamette Falls.

And in a June 5 letter to ODFW, Warm Springs Chairman Jonathan Smith Jr. expressed “strong opposition” to the department’s proposed agreement with Grand Ronde.

The letter outlines the rights reserved under Warm Springs’ 1855 treaty to fish off-reservation “at all usual and accustomed areas as our people have done since time immemorial.”

It’s a right that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed, and one that Warm Springs, Umatilla and other tribes with treaty-reserved fishing rights actively exercise, both in terms of harvest and as leaders of work to protect and restore salmon populations and watershed health throughout the tribes’ ancestral lands.

Smith Jr. called the inclusion of Willamette Falls in Grand Ronde’s agreement with ODFW “deeply concerning.”

“At Willamette Falls, in particular, we are the lead fisheries manager on lamprey catch monitoring and escapement projects,” Smith Jr. wrote.

Grand Ronde’s treaty rights were extinguished by the federal government in the 1950s. The tribe says the 1983 restoration of their federal status as a sovereign nation reinstated those rights. That’s a contested claim.

With the Willamette Valley Treaty, 20 tribes and bands ceded the Willamette Valley to the U.S. government. This is the treaty that Grand Ronde says gives it rights at Willamette Falls. Congress ratified that treaty in March 1855.

A century later, during the Termination Era of federal Indigenous policy, the government enacted laws based on the idea that Indigenous people should assimilate into American society and give up their tribal identities, and that the rights negotiated in treaties and codified in federal laws were preventing them from doing so.

In 1954, Congress passed the Western Oregon Termination Act, ending its recognition of Grand Ronde’s tribal sovereignty (as well as Siletz, CLUSI and all other tribes west of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon). Termination unilaterally dissolved tribal membership and ended the U.S. government’s obligations toward terminated tribes, including the services guaranteed in treaties in exchange for land. Termination policies also allowed the government to seize millions of acres of tribal lands rich with minerals and timber.

Congress quickly passed 46 laws terminating 109 tribes around the United States, including 62 in Oregon — more than any other state.

Grand Ronde leaders, including Chairwoman Kennedy, fought for decades to have their recognition restored.

“There was a core of people who managed to stay in the area, but it was the cemetery — our ancestors — who really kept us together, and we kept coming back year by year and saying we’re going to do this,” Kennedy told Underscore last year. “This wrong that has been done to us, we will fight it. And in the end, restoration was achieved in 1983.”

Cheryle A. Kennedy, Chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, appeared at a June 16 meeting of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, one day after ODFW Director Curt Melcher removed the proposed Memorandum of Agreement between ODFW and Grand Ronde from the agenda. At the meeting, Kennedy expressed her disappointment that the MOA was pulled from the agenda. She also spoke in support of the MOAs between ODFW and the two other tribes there that day, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

The Grand Ronde Restoration Act renders the Western Oregon Termination Act “inapplicable to the tribes, and restores all rights and privileges which may have been diminished or lost under it.”

But the law also states that it “precludes the restoration of any hunting, fishing or trapping rights under this act.”

Like Siletz, Grand Ronde faced the terrible choice imposed by the consent decree.

Chairwoman Kennedy says the treaties Grand Ronde negotiated are central to her leadership today.

“The treaty-signing grandfather of mine died defending that,” Kennedy said. “How can we sit here and say, ‘Oh well, it didn't really mean anything?'”

Smith, meanwhile, said Grand Ronde “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.

“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,” Smith wrote.

“ODFW should have known that the draft agreement not only implicates our sovereign and treaty-reserved fishing, hunting, and gathering interests but it carries significant risk of inter-tribal conflict between us and [Grand Ronde].”

“We do not deny that [Grand Ronde] is a victim of historical injustice like all tribes, which is why our elders supported the restoration of [Grand Ronde’s] status as a federally-recognized tribe. [Grand Ronde], however, ought not be allowed, as a matter of fairness and equity, to remedy any injustice visited upon it by the United States, the State of Oregon, or others at our expense or that of other Oregon tribes.”

Smith called for a more comprehensive process that involves all tribes whose interests coincide at Willamette Falls to be part of discussions before Grand Ronde’s agreement is approved.

Grand Ronde held two public meetings in May, which representatives from Warm Springs and Umatilla attended, according to attendance lists provided by Grand Ronde. But Smith Jr. said ODFW should have involved Warm Springs before it filed its April notice of proposed rulemaking for the draft agreement with the Oregon Secretary of State.

Cheryle A. Kennedy, chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, points to the proposed geographic scope of the original Memorandum of Agreement between Grande Ronde and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (in green). The agreement would allow the tribe to oversee fishing and hunting of tribal members in the proposed region. After months of negotiations, Kennedy said ODFW changed the terms, reducing the proposed geographic scope by removing the yellow portion indicated on the map. ODFW Director Curt Melcher pulled the agency’s proposed MOA with Grand Ronde from the June 16 agenda and postponed it until August. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

“As a matter of respect for the sovereignty of both tribes, ODFW should have anticipated the potential conflict and developed a process that better aligns with the rule of law, which would have included timely notice to us and a meaningful opportunity to be heard,” Smith Jr. wrote.

On Friday, ODFW Director Melcher said that is his current goal.

“We have engaged with several other tribes and we’re just trying to take a small pause to take away any criticisms of process as we bring this agreement back in August,” Melcher said. “And I don’t expect that there will necessarily be any changes to the agreement between now and August.”

Tribes to oversee fishing and hunting licensing for tribal members

Enrolled members of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians will now be able to participate in hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering licensed by the tribe.

“Before termination, our tribe had lifetime fishing permits,” said Ramil Beers, CLUSI tribal member and Chairman Brad Kneaper’s great nephew. “But after we got terminated, in order for our tribe to be restored, we had to leave that behind. Now we have to get our permits from people other than our own tribe. I would much rather get the permits from my tribe, where I know the money pays for restoration projects, native plant restoration and much more.”

Ramil Beers, enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians and Chairman Brad Kneaper’s great nephew, talked to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission June 16 about what the tribe’s memorandum of agreement means to him. “As a Native youth, fishing is very important to me. I have been fishing my entire life, and I love it,” he said, adding that one of his favorite memories was teaching his younger sister how to fish. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

The agreements are “a great opportunity to expand the pace and scale of habitat restoration in the areas of interest for the tribe,” said Davia Palmeri, acting deputy director for fish and wildlife programs at ODFW.

While increasing opportunities for tribal members to harvest fish and wildlife resources, these agreements will also allow the state and tribes to pool finances on cooperative restoration projects.

“The intent is to increase opportunities for tribal members to harvest fish and wildlife consistent with tribal values rather than consistent with state values, which is the case under a state fish and wildlife license,” Palmeri said.

She added that in some cases, this will mean tribal members will have hunting and fishing opportunities that other Oregonians do not have, though she does not anticipate a large increase of hunting and fishing participation, rather a shift in management and licensing from the state to the tribes.

“Our intent is that it’s a perpetual agreement that’s really defining the relationship between the department and the tribe,” Palmeri said.

From left, Rick Eichstaedt, attorney for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians; CTCLUSI Chairman Brad Kneaper; and Davia Palmeri, acting deputy director for fish and wildlife programs at ODFW. Palmeri presented the proposed Memorandum of Agreement to the ODFW board of commissioners, which the board approved unanimously. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

For members of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the agreement has additional meaning.

In 1980, the Siletz Reservation Act established a reservation for the Siletz tribe — in signing the act, the tribe also had to enter into a consent decree, prohibiting tribal hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering activities except as authorized under Oregon state law. In other words, the tribe had to give up the right to manage their own hunting and fishing seasons on tribal land in order to regain a reservation when the federal government restored Siletz’s federal recognition, post-Termination. The tribe is currently still bound by the rules of the consent decree.

During the same weekend as the adoption of the memorandum, the Siletz tribe hosted its annual solstice ceremony. Chairman Pigsley shared that the tribe had to buy salmon for the ceremony — with the adoption of the MOA with ODFW, next year tribal members will instead be able to go out and catch the fish for the ceremony.

Though the MOA does not renegotiate the terms of the consent decree, it allows the tribe to once again oversee fishing and hunting management for tribal members.

“We know things will never be the same as they were 70 years ago, 40 years ago. But we want to be part of whatever it is that we can do to preserve those resources to support our families,” Chairman Pigsley said. “With this agreement, those things would be revived. The subsistence would be wonderful for our tribal members and the ceremonial salmon.”

Lead image: Mary Wahl, chair of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission, and ODFW Director Curt Melcher listen as Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians Delores Pigsley, shares about what it would mean for the Siletz tribe to oversee hunting and fishing licenses for its members. At the June 16 meeting, the ODFW commission unanimously passed its Memorandum of Agreement with Siletz. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

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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...