Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy and Tribal Secretary Jon A. George watch as tribal employees launch a boat to build a fishing platform at Willamette Falls.

Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy and Tribal Secretary Jon A. George watch as tribal employees launch a boat to build a fishing platform at Willamette Falls.

Cassandra Profita/OPB/EarthFix

Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy is standing above Willamette Falls in Oregon City looking down on a torrent of whitewater alongside the Portland General Electric dam.

Somewhere in the water below, tribal workers are making their way in boats to the site where they hope to build a fishing platform – the first to be built at the falls in a generation.

The tribe had planned on accessing the site by land through PGE property but they recently learned that’s not an option.

The tribe has permission from the state to build a scaffold and catch 15 salmon for ceremonial purposes on state land below the falls. 

But the Warm Springs and Umatila tribes want the state to withdraw that permission because, they say, it interferes with their treaty rights.

And PGE has appealed the permit arguing the land in question actually belongs to the utility.

Without access to PGE property, the Grande Ronde have only one treacherous route to their controversial platform site.

“Willamette Falls is second only to Niagara Falls in volume and velocity of water that spills over the falls like this,” Kennedy said. “So, it’s very dangerous. To force us to come through these extreme rapids it’s just an awful, awful thing.”

Kennedy said her tribal ancestors fished here on platforms along with the members of many other tribes.

Harvesting lamprey at the base of Willamette Falls.

Harvesting lamprey at the base of Willamette Falls.

Morrisey Productions

“If you look back at some of the drawings, they were of our people who were fishing with scaffolds and dip nets,” she said.

But Chuck Sams with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said the state’s decision to permit a scaffold for the Grand Ronde flies in the face of an agreement other treaty tribes made not to build scaffolds at Willamette Falls.

“This platform would interfere with our right to harvest lamprey in a safe manner in addition to blocking our rights in the area,” he said.

Meanwhile, PGE claims the land where the Grand Ronde scaffold was permitted to be built isn’t actually state land. The utility has appealed the state permit and the opposing tribes are threatening to challenge the state permit in court.

But so far, the Grand Ronde is moving ahead with their plans, albeit through treacherous waters.

“We are a people of the fish,” Kennedy said. “It’s beyond me how anyone could object to this, but there’s objection and we’ve been denied access to the easier route or the safer route of acquiring fish.”