Every second, 30,849 cubic feet of water plunge over the edge of Willamette Falls. Among American waterfalls, it is second in volume to Niagara, although the signature falls on the Willamette River are 130 feet shorter.
Another difference: you can visit Niagara Falls.
Willamette Falls is much harder to reach, or even see. The best views of the waterfall come from a bus stop outside Oregon City or from a floating tour boat at its base. There are no lookouts where visitors can get close to the natural wonder.
For years, such a destination was promised, only to be swept up in a statewide dispute between government agencies and Oregon’s nine native tribes.
Last week offered the latest tantalizing clue as to how this lockdown might break.
The Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde have announced a name for their 23-acre property along the falls: “Tumwata Village.”
What’s in a name? A little. In 2019, the tribe purchased the former Blue Heron paper mill for $17 million, securing real estate of enormous cultural and economic value. The mill site is particularly valuable as the Grand Ronde seeks to diversify its economic base, which is almost entirely dependent on its casino, Spirit Mountain.
In March, the Grand Ronde withdrew from a partnership with the Metro regional government, Oregon City, Clackamas County and the State of Oregon, which had agreed to build a boardwalk along the falls. (Four other Indigenous nations were in talks to join the partnership.) Ownership of the Blue Heron site now gives the Grand Ronde the ability to act alone – and a significant advantage over other tribes claiming historic legal rights in the metropolitan area. from Portland.
This is why the announcement of the name of the village of Tumwata, accompanied by the publication of drawings showing a square, a shopping district and a hotel, is much more than a typical press release: it is a sovereign nation which jockeys with other indigenous nations and several levels of regional government on what trade along the waterfall will look like. As WW previously reported, the stakes are high: Poverty is rampant on Oregon’s reservations, and Portland’s closest casino, Ilani, is operated by the Cowlitz Tribe in Washington state (“Fish Story,” WWSeptember 12, 2018).
In interviews last week at the time of the announcement, President Cheryle A. Kennedy said Grand Ronde has no plans to build a casino next to Willamette Falls.
This week, in a video chat, WW asked him why not.
WW: In which language is the tumwata? Is that Chinook jargon?
Cheryle A. Kennedy: Not necessarily. The name comes from the people who occupied the area millennia ago. And so they are part of the Willamette Falls people, the Clowwalla tribe and the Clackamas people. It predates commercial language. It’s just the names of the people who were there.
What is the historical and ceremonial purpose of the falls to tribes and bands within the Grand Ronde?
It was a place of subsistence. It was a gathering place. It was a ceremonial place. It was a place of commerce. It therefore has thousands of years of history as being probably one of the most robust trading locations west of the Mississippi for tribal peoples. Europeans who came as explorers and travelers witnessed the abundance of the falls in the amount of fish that lived there.
So historically it’s a fishing site?
Will the planned village include a fishing platform?
The Blue Heron property was not there for the fishing. It was there for business. In the same way, it is planned to develop this site in terms of businesses that will be there, whether restaurants, shops or a hotel. But it’s all about healing. And it’s about allowing people to have access to a powerful spiritual space. It’s very spiritual for us.
A fishing rig is not something that is built into this plan. Just to answer your question directly.
How to define access?
To be able to walk along the river, to feel the beauty, the spray of the falls, the flow of the river and to hear the powerful message that comes from the falls.
So for years when Metro was developing a project there, it promised that the public could walk to the waterfall. Will this happen to Tumwata?
You might want to check out Metro’s design, because the path they envisioned — and it was in their planning documents — was to go up the middle of the property. Our design is to have it right next to the river. We will provide access to the river itself, not the old design of those who were interested in development there.
What kind of access will other tribes have?
There will be a gathering place built almost in the center of the property where other tribes can come and gather. They can organize ceremonies. They can have fun like that. And so, yes, we have a place for them.
In a recent interview, you said that gaming was not something you were interested in on this site. Why is Wood Village or Spirit Mountain a better place to play than Oregon City?
We have invested so much in Spirit Mountain. Our thought is to always maintain it and develop it as much as possible. Wood Village: Everyone knows it was a gambling place to begin with. [Editor’s note: The Grand Ronde purchased the former Multnomah Greyhound Club in 2015.] Tumwata village was a place where our people lived. He fed not only our bodies, but our souls. So we want to keep that.
It sounds like you’re saying the word “casino” on this site would be some kind of profanation.
In a way, yes. An abandonment of what he was there for.
Do you think your intentions will ease tensions with the other tribes?
I don’t know if other tribal leaders really think that or not. We have discussions and friendships that go back long before gambling was even a word here in Oregon.
You have walked to the falls. How does it feel under the spray?
If someone has ever been in the mountains during a thunderstorm and you feel the roar of thunder under your feet and the crack of lightning then they are right there. The power you feel is the same I feel in Willamette Falls.
Correction: This story incorrectly stated that the Grand Ronde Confederate Tribes had participated in a partnership with Metro and four other tribes. In fact, the partnership included Grand Ronde, Metro, Oregon City, Clackamas County and the State of Oregon. WW regret the mistake.