Colonial conquest

Hidatsa Tribe member Charles Hudson explains that Celilo Falls may have “disappeared from the face of the earth… [in 1957], but never from the hearts and minds of the Indian people of the Columbia River Basin.” He adds that eminent domain is

"a tool for sovereign governments to enforce authority—ostensibly for the public good. To Native people, eminent domain typically has meant colonial conquest, in which tribes bear the brunt of the quote unquote progress. So the term obviously means different things to different people depending on which side of the equation you find yourself."

For centuries white European notions of conquering new lands, owning private property, and the taking of land for the “common good” have been at odds with Native American understanding of land, place, and nature as a permanent collective good and integrated into spiritual life. Wilbur Slockish speaks to this dissonance between European legal foundations and Native American perspectives:

"Eminent domain doesn’t take into consideration the lifestyle, the food source, especially if you’re a native person. And to me, it’s an unjust way of taking away our control, or our usage of traditional foods. And that’s the way I see eminent domain. It’s useful for someone else to take away our food source, our lifestyle, our salmon, roots, berries, deer, what we needed to sustain ourselves. And by doing that with eminent domain, they really took away our independence and made us dependent on government programs."

To many Native Americans, the one-time compensation for taken land was miniscule compared to the continuing benefits and profits now generated by the dam for others. A total monetary compensation of $26,000,000 was provided to tribal members, homeowners, businesses, and the tribes themselves as indemnity payments. However, many Native Americans said that no amount of money could be sufficient compensation for losing Celilo Falls (Oregon History Project). In contrast, the new hydro-electrical capacity produced by the dam is perpetual—producing a revenue stream for the companies and government agencies involved.

One implied suggestion in the comments of many Native Americans was that if land was to be taken and denied to future generations, rather than a one-time compensation for the loss, there should have been an ongoing percentage of the hydro-electric sales profits paid to Native Americans. Wilbur Slockish explains,

"I didn’t think the …[$3,750] was, in my mind, adequate for what I had to give up. Because around the country where they are still selling electricity, they are still making millions of dollars from it. So that’s the part I don’t understand. Why my grandchildren and my great grandchildren and those ones unborn can’t be compensated for what they lost out on."

The loss of land to future generations is a recurring theme. As Watson Totus, the Yakama Tribal Chair, testified at appropriation hearings before the building of The Dalles Dam: “No compensation could be made which would benefit my future generations, the people still to come.”[1] As in other colonial arrangements, this limited payment and denial of ongoing income and a sustainable local Native American economy has perpetuated a dependence on the government. This is not unlike the process of “development of underdevelopment” in Latin America and other regions documented by “dependency” and “world systems” theorists.[2] It has meant that future generations of Native Americans have been cut off from an economic livelihood and cultural anchor.

[1] Watson Totus testimony in front of the U.S Congress House Committee on Appropriations, May 7, 1951 as cited in Barber, p. 86.

[2] For example see Andre Gunder Frank, The Development of Underdevelopment. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966 and Immanuel Wallerstein, The Capitalist World-Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Accessed February 14, 2016.