Two Northwest tribes on Monday called for removing three Columbia River dams — Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day — to support salmon recovery and help dwindling orcas.
The Yakama Nation, during a news conference on Indigenous Peoples Day near The Dalles, Ore., said the tribe never agreed to construction of the three dams, as required by an 1855 treaty.
The news conference was held at Celilo Falls, a historic tribal fishing site that vanished in 1957 following construction of The Dalles Dam. The Lummi Nation in Northwest Washington also supported removing the three dams during Monday’s event.
The Yakama say they ceded more than 10 million acres to the United States for rights reserved in the Treaty of 1855, including a guarantee that the tribe could fish outside the Yakama Reservation. The tribe says the three dams inundated many of the tribe’s fishing sites and led to the decline of salmon, lamprey and other traditional foods the Yakama continue to rely on today.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns and operates the three dams. Bonneville Dam alone generates enough electricity to supply nearly 500,000 homes. The Bonneville Power Administration sells electricity from these and other federally owned dams in the Columbia River basin.
Federal officials were unavailable for comment Monday because of the Columbus Day holiday.
In 2017, Clark Public Utilities purchased 63 percent of its electricity from BPA. Despite previous increases in BPA rates, the public utility district hasn’t raised electricity rates in eight years.
Removing hydroelectric dams is a divisive issue that pits farmers and business interests against environmentalists. Columbia Riverkeeper released a statement praising the tribes’ call for dam removal.
“Yakama Nation, supported by Lummi Nation, announced a bold vision: a Columbia River teeming with salmon, a restored Celilo Falls and a Pacific Northwest powered by clean energy,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper executive director. “We stand in solidarity with Yakama and Lummi nations. At a time when salmon and orca populations are in crisis, we need bold ideas and courageous leadership.
“Our decadeslong effort to recover endangered salmon is not working. The stagnant reservoirs behind the dams create dangerously hot water, and climate change is pushing the river over the edge. Year after year, the river gets hotter. The system is broken, but we can fix it. Let’s transition from costly hydropower to clean energy, honor our nation’s treaties, and restore the mighty Columbia.”
Removing the three dams is unlikely to gain much political traction. Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, urged the Port of Vancouver to oppose breaching four dams on the lower Snake River.
Doctrine of Discovery
JoDe Goudy, Yakama Nation Tribal Council chairman, said the concept of “Christian discovery” has been used to strip rights from indigenous peoples.
“The false religious doctrine of Christian discovery was used by the United States to perpetuate crimes of genocide and forced displacement against native peoples,” Goudy said in a statement. “The Columbia River dams were built on this false legal foundation and decimated the Yakama Nation’s fisheries, traditional foods and cultural sites.”
Christian discovery, also called the Doctrine of Discovery, is based on an argument that Europeans automatically gained land rights upon “discovering” the Americas, starting when Christopher Columbus came ashore in the Bahamas in 1492.
The U.S. Supreme Court embraced this doctrine in an 1823 decision. Chief Justice John Marshall’s unanimous opinion held that Indians lost their rights with the arrival of the first Europeans and those rights were passed to the United States upon it winning independence from Great Britain.
Goudy drew a stark contrast between Indigenous Peoples Day and Columbus Day, which also was celebrated Monday.
“Columbus Day celebrates the Christian-European invasion of our lands under the colonial doctrine of Christian discovery,” Goudy said. “Today, we acknowledge Indigenous Peoples Day. On behalf of the Yakama Nation and those things that cannot speak for themselves, I call on the United States to reject the doctrine of Christian discovery and immediately remove the Bonneville Dam, Dalles Dam and John Day Dam.”
The Lummi Indian Reservation is west of Bellingham in Whatcom County. Tribal members have historically hunted orcas in the Salish Sea.
Southern resident orcas are federally protected as a marine mammal and an endangered species.
“We stand with the Yakama Nation in asserting their sovereign right to make decisions and act in the best interest of their people, their homelands and future generations,” Jeremiah Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, said in a statement.
“We are in a constant battle, whether defeating coal ports, opposing increased vessel traffic on the Salish Sea, repairing culverts, or removing invasive Atlantic Salmon, to leave to future generations a life way promised to our ancestors 164 years ago. Our people understand that the salmon, like the orca, are the miner’s canary for the health of the Salish Sea and for all its children.”