When Johnny Jackson’s home caught fire, emergency responders discovered the lone fire hydrant at the Bureau of Indian Affairs-managed tribal fishing site wasn’t hooked up.
His home, nestled between boulders near the edge of the river, burned to the ground.
But the 85-year-old enrolled member of the Yakama tribe continues to live on the site in a trailer that lacks running water, because it is where his people have lived for generations, fishing from the Columbia and White Salmon rivers.
The village he remembers from visiting his grandparents as a boy was destroyed by construction of Bonneville Dam in 1938. Gone are the two-story homes with salmon drying racks out front. Now it’s just a small parking lot crowded with old boats, an abandoned trailer and an outhouse. The dock no longer reaches the river.
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Jackson is one of many tribal members living in substandard conditions at sites along the Columbia River that were never designed to support permanent residents. But Jackson and others refuse to move away from the river that defines their way of life.
“This was a village site, and I’m just taking back what was ours,” he said. “I don’t go anywhere; I do like my grandpas taught me — when the fish come, you get them, and when they go by, you think of the people upriver.”
The lack of housing along the river is a problem that has persisted for decades, but new legislation in Congress, sponsored by senators from Washington and Oregon, would fund basic sanitation and restart studies on potential solutions.
“I believe it is critical for there to be safe, reliable housing along the Columbia River so treaty tribes can exercise their protected rights,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. “Salmon fishing is an integral part of the Native American legacy, and this legislation aims to make long-overdue improvements to tribal fishing access rights while we work on the longer-term need for additional housing. This is an important step toward honoring tribal rights.”
A 2013 study commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers found evidence that at least 45 families were displaced by the rising waters behind Bonneville Dam and never compensated, along with about 30 more displaced by construction of The Dalles Dam two decades later. The tribes say that report significantly underestimates how many families were affected.
Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Nez Perce on fisheries issues, is optimistic congressional and tribal leaders will develop housing solutions soon.
In the meantime, the commission is doing what it can to maintain the sites as part of its mission to provide access to the fishery.
“The community needs help, they really do,” Lumley said. “They just want the most basic services, water, sewer. It’s sad actually, they’ve practically given up on the dream of village replacements after all these years.”
Water and a septic system are at the top of Jackson’s list. Along with his son and niece, Jackson lives at Underwood In-Lieu Site, a small parcel of land the Corps allocated to tribal members to replace fishing sites flooded by the dams. But that name frustrates Jackson even more than the lack of basic services.
“It’s not an ‘in-lieu’ site, it’s our home. Our people never gave it up. They wouldn’t go to the reservation,” Jackson said. “I get tired of listening to, ‘They gave us this land.’ ... They never gave us this land; we were always here. And they never paid us for taking our land.”
Corps treaty fishing access program manager Eric Stricklin said there wasn’t much discussion about replacement housing or compensation for lost property with tribal leaders when the dam was under construction.
“What I’ve been able to figure out is, during the construction of Bonneville there was some negotiation with the tribes, and it resulted in the 1939 agreement in which tribes really focused on fishing access, that was paramount,” Stricklin said.
That agreement led the Corps to build five “in-lieu” sites for tribal fishing. Although they were intended to be day-use sites, some families refused to leave.
At Cooks Landing, more than a dozen families living in small wooden houses and trailers share one bath house with running water. There are no fire hydrants.
During fishing season, the site can swell with 40 or 50 more fishermen, said Andy Sohappy, a Yakama fisherman who grew up at the site where several relatives still live. His father, David Sohappy, a hero of the tribe’s fishing rights fight, is memorialized in a mural on the side of the bath house.
Sohappy recalled that in the 1970s, government officials offered his family a house if they agreed to leave the village, but they refused to leave for fear that, if they did, they’d never be allowed back.
To reduce the impact on those five original in-lieu sites, from 1988-2012 the Corps built 31 more fishing access sites for the tribes.
Lumley, who grew up fishing during the Fish Wars era, praised the treaty fishing access sites for giving tribal members safe access to boat ramps, along with space to camp and shower.
“But tribal members started to move into them permanently, and that’s been a big problem,” he said.
The services weren’t designed to meet the needs of year-round residents, and for many years the sites’ status as outside the jurisdiction of most law enforcement drew drug addicts, creating even more problems for family friendly fishing access, Lumley said.
Building new housing would allow the fishing sites to be used for their intended purpose, he said.
Upriver, the new Celilo village, built near The Dalles Dam by the Corps in 2007 to replace dilapidated homes without water and sewer services, shows tribal members that the government can come through with long-promised housing.
But even if Congress provides funds for the construction of new homes for those displaced by Bonneville Dam, how to allocate that resource to tribal members would be complicated.
“Would they give houses to the families that were here then or the people who are here now?” mused Yakama fisherman Will Zack, as he cleaned sockeye at the Bonneville Treaty Fishing Access site just upstream from the dam.
He knows that, several generations back, his family fished the Columbia, but the traditional ties were lost along the way. Since an uncle got the family back into the business, Zack fishes year-round and “practically lives” at the access site, he said.
Of course, he’d like to see future housing aimed at families like his making a living on the river, he said, but he knows such decisions will be complicated.
In the meantime, almost 70 people are living around the access site where he cleans and sells fish, in tents, RVs and illegal makeshift shelters.
A few years back, CRITFC sponsored a cleanup of the site, tearing down illegal structures and hauling out trash. There’s now a law enforcement presence that aims to keep away drug addicts drawn to the formerly lawless land.
But the fishing-focused organization can’t really tackle the housing crisis, Lumley said. He’s hopeful a continuing conversation about creating an intertribal housing and economic development agency will come to fruition and take on the issue.
His vision for what that agency could achieve is illustrated just a few miles downstream from the crowded Bonneville fishing site: a community the Corps did relocate.
North Bonneville features quiet cul-de-sacs of late 1970s homes and a shady park, all of which were built by the Corps to replace homes it demolished to build Bonneville Dam’s second powerhouse.
It’s hard not to get angry comparing that community, built for displaced white families, with the stark situation facing displaced tribal families, Lumley said.
Stricklin said the difference is a matter of history. The Bonneville expansion followed Corps protocols to study and mitigate affects of its construction projects. But the dam itself was built “in a different era,” before such studies were part of the process, he said.
Lumley says it’s most definitely not too late.
“This is an example of what can and should be done for tribal communities too,” Lumley said. “It’s an embarrassment on our history that it has not been done yet.”