Debating public benefits

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, dam proponents continued to bring up economic progress to justify the taking of lands through eminent domain. They also used the emerging Cold War as further justification of an urgent need for the dam and how it would serve the public good. In 1951, Herbert West, the executive vice president of the Inland Empire Waterways Association, was poetic in his pleas during Congressional hearings. He said that the potential kilowatts of the proposed dam were “sleeping giants, awaiting only the summons of man to rouse them from their river bed to the Herculean task of all-out production.”[1] Further, according to historian Katrine Barber, West then warned that the “United States faced a potentially devastating power shortage as it battled international cold war enemies. A strong industrial economy, he argued, would prevent the spread of communism at home.”[2]

© Richard Wasserman, 2011

On the other side, Native American tribes argued that the dam and resulting lake would encroach on traditional fishing sites. They pointed to long-standing treaties which protected “usual and accustomed” places of Native American activity from takeover or destruction. Beginning in 1945, when first discussions of a dam emerged, the tribal councils of the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce tribes passed annual resolutions protesting the loss of the Falls.[3] In their testimony in multiple hearings, tribal leaders emphasized the cost of losing a sacred site, as well as the economic costs. Claims of sacred lands, the sanctity of salmon, and the importance of preserving traditional lands and practices for multiple generations into the future did not successfully compete with the bottom-line of the economic progress and Cold War ledger.

After exhausting all legal appeals, the dam construction moved ahead. Charged with negotiating a settlement with the affected tribes, the US Corps of Engineers met with tribal representatives for several months in 1951. Despite opposition, a settlement was reached that compensated each Indian $3,750 and required their departure from the land.[4]

Ultimately 36 families were moved from Celilo Village to make way for the inundation. Although Native American families had been displaced in earlier decades, this was seen as one of the more significant forced moves since the relocation of Native Americans to reservations in the mid-1850s.[5] Referencing the many centuries of thousands of Native Americans coming to Celilo for seasonal fishing and trading, Katrine Barber observes, “It must have seemed impossible to them that an ancient cycle in which the return of salmon drew the return of people could be stopped by a handful of engineers and their concrete.”[6]

[1] Barber, p. 75.

[2] Barber, p. 76.

[3] Barber, p. 82.

[4]Each member of the affected tribes was compensated a little more than $3,750. (After deduction of attorney fees and other court expenses, each enrolled member of the Warm Springs tribe received $145.50.) This was a settlement proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and accepted by the tribal leadership. The total settlement package was $26,000,000 which also included value of land, houses, and businesses, and indemnity payments to the tribes. Center for Columbia River History. N.D. “The Dam: Compensation,” Website. Accessed March 6, 2016; Ojibwa, “Dam Indians: The Dalles Dam,” July 27, 2012 Blog post on Native American Netroots discussion forum. Accessed March 6, 2016; Years later, responding to continued pressure from Native Americans who argued that 19th century treaties with tribes had been violated with the taking of land and the inundation of Native American communities, Congress passed a law in 1988 authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to work with tribes to create 31 “in lieu of” sites over 600 acres along the Columbia River, re-establishing exclusive Native American fishing rights along stretches of the river. This also included the development of an alternative Celilo Indian Village, although members of the new community continue to struggle to sustain a living. Terri Hansen, “Treaty tribes dedicate final replacement fishing site,” High Country News. May 16, 2012. Web blog. Accessed February 14, 2016; Sadie Babits, “Celilo Village is Rebuilt, But Poverty Remains,” OPB FM Radio report transcript, July 12, 2009. Accessed February 14, 2016.

[5] Barber, p. 127.

[6] Barber, p. 128.