Government Fulfills Promise to Tribes
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government finally made good Friday on a promise to compensate four Northwest tribes for ancient fishing grounds flooded when federal dams were built on the Columbia River a half century ago.
``It’s been a long, long time,″ said Nelson Wallulatum, 70, chief of the Wasco Tribe on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon.
``We wish our ancient ones could be present to see that justice is being done,″ he said in a prayer during a ceremony at the Interior Department. ``Our patience is worth something.″
The Interior Department and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entered an agreement with tribes from Oregon, Washington and Idaho to spend an estimated $57 million over five years to build 29 new fishing sites on the river.
Acts of Congress and treaty rights dating to the 1850s entitle the tribes to the sites, said Ada E. Deer, assistant interior secretary for Indian affairs.
``This agreement has been in the works for more than half a century and we are now gratified that we can begin to establish these fishing sites for the tribes,″ Deer said.
``Justice is done,″ she said after signing the agreement along with tribal leaders and John Zirschky, acting assistant secretary of the army for civil works.
The money will be used to build boat ramps, docks, camp grounds and other facilities to improve access to the river.
The deal comes as the federal government, Northwest tribes and a variety of river interests in the region struggle with costly plans to save several salmon species from extinction.
Construction of the Bonneville dam east of Portland, Ore., in 1938 flooded approximately 37 tribal fishing sites, the Interior Department said.
The dams turned semi-arid deserts into irrigated farm land, opened new Pacific shipping channels for wheat farmers as far inland as Montana and produced cheap electricity for aluminum companies, among others.
But they also led to dramatic declines in salmon populations over the past 50 years, blocking adult migration upstream as well as slowing river flows needed to flush young fish to the sea.
Wallulatum, a lifetime member of the Tribal Council of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, said he was 12 years old when his tribe started opposing construction of the dams in the early 1930s.
The compensation goes to the tribes affiliated with the Nez Perce Tribe, Lapwai, Idaho; Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Pendleton, Ore.; Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, Warm Springs, Ore.; and Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation, Toppenish, Wash.