Bipartisan U.S. Senate committee supports safety bill for Columbia River tribal sites

By:  Molly Harbagger
Source: The Oregonian

A bill that would fix glaring safety and sanitation problems at 31 tribal fishing sites is heading to the Senate floor. It passed the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs committee Wednesday with bipartisan support.

The bill would direct the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide badly needed resources to the overcrowded sites where members of the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes camp for six months to a year to catch salmon. The sites lack adequate drinking water, electricity and bathroom facilities. When The Oregonian/OregonLive visited all 31, only one had capacity to fight fires at the site.

Four tribes that had fishing villages wiped out in the last century are left waiting for the federal government to keep a promise of better housing.

It's long past time to correct this injustice for tribal families who, for decades, have endured dangerous housing conditions and increasingly deteriorating fishing sites," U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. "Improving conditions for tribal members to continue their traditional way of life on their own terms is a critical step toward a new chapter of equitable treatment for tribes."

All four Washington and Oregon senators -- Wyden; Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon; Patty Murray, D-Washington; Maria Cantwell, D-Washington -- are championing the bill, with support from the Northwest delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flooded out millenia-old tribal villages when the agency built Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day dams. At the time, the federal government promised to rebuild houses for the people who lost them to the dams.

Eighty years later, that obligation is still unfulfilled, but there is hope there is progress. The Army Corps dedicated about $1.5 million so far this year to developing a plan for a new village at The Dalles Dam, with possibly more coming.

In December, former President Barack Obama signed a law that directed the Army Corps to build houses at Bonneville Dam and study the agency's obligations to the John Day-area tribal members.

However, tribal members use the fishing sites as permanent housing currently, and will continue to use them seasonally even after the villages are built. There is too little money to maintain the fishing camps for how much use they get, and not enough infrastructure for the kind of long-term camping that occurs.

"The legislation will bring needed priority and resources to the fishing sites and in turn the lives of tribal members who come to the Columbia River to exercise their treaty fishing rights," said Leland Bill, Chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We appreciate the Delegation's commitment improving the health and safety at these sites and look forward to working with them on these issues."