Tuesday’s event with the Confederate Tribes of the Grande Ronde was a kind of groundbreaking event that represents one of the clearest steps forward in Willamette Falls after nearly a decade of planning.
A prayer of blessing was said, and then an excavator finally destroyed the crumbling former site of the Blue Heron Paper Mill in Oregon City, a building that has long been a bane on the landscape of Indigenous ancestral lands. This was a ceremonial demolition, with much more planning to come, but it is a first step for the Confederate tribes of the Grande Ronde to reclaim what was theirs.
“This site here is of deep historical and cultural significance,” said Chris Mercier, vice president of the Grand Ronde Tribal Council, during Tuesday’s event. “The fact that we bought it and now own it is kind of a dream come true for many of us and many of our tribal members because our roots run deep here. “
The lands around Willamette Falls were once home to the Clowewalla and Kosh-huk-shix villages of the Clackamas people, who ceded the land to the US government under the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855 before being evicted and forcibly relocated.
For generations, the falls have also been frequented by residents of other indigenous villages in the area, most notably the Chinookan people of the lower Columbia River, who today are represented by several different tribal bodies.
Le Grand Ronde calls Willamette Falls “tumwata”, which is the Chinook jargon for waterfall, and refers to the river as “walamt”. Each year, Oregon tribesmen visit the waterfall to harvest lamprey – a prehistoric eel-like creature that has been caught there for thousands of years – as well as salmon and other fish. It is their ancestral right.
In 2019, the Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde bought the land, valued at $ 2.9 million, and earlier this year the tribe presented an epic vision that would transform the site of the old mill into a community center and space for tribe members to hold ceremonies near the waterfall.
While it will likely take years to complete, the Willamette Falls renovation is a vision of a special place for both tribal members and the general public.
“We want it to be a very welcoming and inviting place and we want people to have a real experience when they come here,” said Stacia Hernandez, Chief of Staff of the Grande Ronde Tribal Council. “We don’t want it to be a place to show up and have a cup of coffee and leave, we want people to be able to experience it and feel the falls.”
Four other tribal governments with ancestral ties to Willamette Falls will collaborate in the planning process: the Confederate Tribes of the Siletz Indians, the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs, and the Confederate Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.
All agree on a broad environmental rehabilitation of the area by removing industrial structures and restoring habitat for salmon, lamprey and other aquatic species.
“We are excited to share this place with people,” Hernandez said. “For us, this is an opportunity not only to come home and reclaim this place, but to make it better and leave it better for future generations.