By Frances Fischer, Land Trust Coordinator, and Kevin Gorman, Executive Director
Two years ago, 21 land trusts across Oregon, from Brookings to Enterprise, began contemplating how to incorporate tribal perspectives into their work protecting Northwest ecosystems and landscapes. As a member of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, Friends of the Columbia Gorge has been an active participant in the Oregon Land Justice Project, an initiative that will shape our work for years and decades to come. The ultimate goal of the Oregon Land Justice Project is to restore access and ownership of lands to the Indigenous people who have occupied and stewarded the lands for countless generations.
The past is present
The history of Native American tribes in the Columbia Gorge is fraught with injustice. Living for centuries along the Columbia River—the only sea-level corridor through the Cascade Mountains and home to what was considered North America’s greatest fishery, Celilo Falls—Native Americans enjoyed stable communities and dynamic economies prior to first contact with Europeans. With that contact came disease, death, and eventually expulsion, as most tribes were forcibly removed from lands near the river to distant reservations. But some native people stayed in the Gorge, and along with those living on the reservations, endured hostilities for fishing, hunting, and gathering roots and berries in accustomed waters and lands.
The tribes’ continuous defiant presence despite violence and injustice gave them a voice when the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act was passed in 1986. The legislation calls for the protection of cultural resources and requires consultation with the four Columbia River Treaty Tribes: Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Percé.
The Treaty Tribes have been consistent conservation advocates in the 37 years since the Scenic Act was passed, and in recent years have been instrumental in limiting the number of coal and oil trains transporting fuels through the Gorge. Today, three tribal members serve on the Columbia River Gorge Commission. Chair Carina Miller and Vice Chair Pah-tu Pitt are members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, and Jerry Meninick is a Yakama tribal member.
Yet even now, Indigenous communities in the Gorge and on reservations find themselves on the outside looking in. The Oregon Land Justice Project has brought together more than 160 conservation staff and board members to address this inequity. Land trusts are opening lands for fishing, hunting, and gathering, and discussing repatriation of land to the region’s Indigenous communities. Friends is embedding tribal perspectives into its projects and decision making. Staff are working with tribal members to place Indigenous stories, history, and art in the interpretive signage planned for public trails. Friends is initiating a cross-boundary stewardship project in the eastern Gorge with the Yakama Nation. With our land trust preserves, we are working to increase Indigenous access and ownership of land in the Gorge.
Beyond the Gorge
Further east, the Wallowa Land Trust, Nez Percé Wallowa Homeland, and The Nature Conservancy are in their fourth year of facilitating traditional root gathering in Wallowa County. The goal of this Indigenous-led program is to increase tribal access to privately owned lands for the gathering of first foods and medicines. Wallowa Land Trust provides food, lodging, and mileage costs for tribal members to return to land from which Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé people were driven nearly 150 years ago. In 2022, more than 100 Nez Percé, Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla tribal members came from all over Washington, Oregon, and Idaho to participate.
Efforts are also underway to support contemporary tribal communities. Friends has worked with a number of other land trusts and conservation groups to raise funds to support Warm Springs residents dealing with a potable water crisis. Working with the Seeding Justice Foundation, we helped raise more than $500,000 for that purpose, an effort that likely would not have succeeded without the Oregon Land Justice Project.
Our shared history and future
At the heart of all of this work is recognition and support for tribal sovereignty. Native American Tribes recognized by the federal government are sovereign nations within the United States. Through treaties, many tribes have maintained hunting, fishing, and gathering rights on lands and waters once ceded to the federal government. The federal government is obligated to ensure those rights are upheld, including maintaining the health and viability of the Pacific Northwest salmon.
These treaties, and the tireless efforts of both treaty- and non-treaty tribes to uphold and defend their sovereignty, provide tribes with a voice in policy, legal, regulatory, and legislative discussions—for example, it was the likely violation of treaty rights due to fishing impacts that halted the construction of numerous coal and oil terminals throughout the Northwest.
Many of us grew up with the idea that unspoiled nature free of human interference (a “nature” that people merely visit, such as national parks) is the ultimate goal of conservation. But nearly every national park in America was established by removing Native Americans from the landscapes they and their ancestors had managed for generations. Only after their removal were the lands declared pristine places that humans should merely visit. For thousands of years, the Columbia Gorge has been a place of people thriving amid stunning landscapes and unique habitats. People will always be part of Gorge conservation. No new project alone can resolve the injustices inflicted on Native tribes for centuries, but the Oregon Land Justice Project is an important step toward healing old wounds.
Oregon Land Justice Project
The Coalition of Oregon Land Trust’s Oregon Land Justice Project began taking root in 2019. Two years later, the 21 organizations listed here became the active founding participants in this program.
To learn more, contact Friends’ land trust coordinator, Frances Fischer, at email@example.com.
New Learning Journey/First Light Tributaries Network
- Blue Mountain Land Trust
- Columbia Land Trust
- Deschutes Land Trust
- East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District
- Forest Park Conservancy
- Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust
- Greenbelt Land Trust
- Land Trust Alliance
- Lower Nehalem Community Trust
- McKenzie River Trust
- North Coast Land Conservancy
- Oregon Agricultural Trust
- Oregon Desert Land Trust
- Southern Oregon Land Conservancy
- The Nature Conservancy in Oregon
- The Trust for Public Land
- The Wetlands Conservancy
- Wallowa Land Trust
- Wild Rivers Land Trust