When the United States government erected a series of dams on the Columbia River in the early 1900s, multiple tribal villages were destroyed. During construction, federal officials promised to supply adequate, permanent housing to the affected communities. Eighty years later, the Trump Administration stands between the tribes and their compensation, according to Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley’s website.
Following the dam construction in the 1930s, many predominantly white communities received the housing compensations they were promised. One compensation project was the city of North Bonneville, constructed for a white community after the Bonneville Dam was erected.
“They were relocated, with infrastructure, but we got just a promise,” Wilbur Slockish Junior, chief of the Klickitat Band of Yakama Nation, said in the Oregonian’s video coverage of the tribal housing issue.
“Leaving our tribes displaced without safe, reliable housing is simply wrong,” Sen. Merkley said.
In December 2016, after 80 years, the U.S.Senate approved a bill that funded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin the construction of tribal housing.
“Leaving our tribes displaced without safe, reliable housing is simply wrong,” Sen. Merkley said when announcing the passing of the bill. “Ever since the construction of the Columbia River [dams] unjustly displaced these tribes starting over 75 years ago, the federal government has owed it to them to provide the housing and infrastructure that was promised.”
The following October, Mick Mulvaney, Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, declined to grant federal funding to build housing for the four tribes. With proper funding, the construction would have gotten underway as early as 2020.
Members of the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes currently live in makeshift encampments that were built by the U.S. government after dam construction. The tribes agree that their “very existence depends on the respectful enjoyment of the Columbia River Basin’s vast land and water resources,” according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
After thousands of years fishing on the Columbia River, the tribes reside in the degraded expanses of poor construction originally intended to be temporary living areas, waiting for the federal government to fulfill their promise.
The four tribes experience poor conditions: a lack of access to restrooms and electricity, tangled power lines strung between houses, and fire hydrants sit defective with no connection to a water source.
“In all my travels around the country, I’ve never seen tribal housing this bad,” Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said in the Oregonian documentary on the matter. “It’s really a national embarrassment to the country.”
The tribes, U.S. Army Corps, and Jeff Merkley are working to amend the situation, yet the lack of funding, $1.6 million to finish planning, is another obstacle in the 80-year fight for tribal housing compensation.