The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde are withdrawing from a partnership that has been working to build a riverwalk and restore public access to Willamette Falls in Oregon City.
On Thursday, Grand Ronde Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy sent a letter to the Willamette Falls Legacy Partners explaining the tribe’s frustration with the lack of progress on the project.
The Grand Ronde purchased the Blue Heron Mill site alongside Willamette Falls in 2019 and recently started demolishing the old paper mill to make way for their own plans for the property, which include public access to the falls, mixed use development and environmental restoration.
The tribe was also one of five Indigenous nations that were invited to join the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, a collaboration that was formed by Metro, the state of Oregon, Oregon City and Clackamas County. The resulting Willamette Falls Trust, an independent nonprofit, originally included representatives from the Grand Ronde tribes, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Yakama Nation and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
But the Grand Ronde tribes withdrew from the nonprofit trust last year. In the letter sent Thursday, Kennedy said the Grand Ronde will no longer participate in discussions around the broader Willamette Falls Legacy Project either, and that the decision was not made lightly.
“It reflects our deep frustration with ineffective project management and poor communications, along with the lack of transparency of the Willamette Falls Trust,” she wrote. “Collectively, all these actions have come to heavily burden the project and led us to this critical point.”
Kennedy wrote that her tribe has watched for 10 years as, “little progress at Willamette Falls occurred while significant public resources have been spent.”
She said months of talks about adding more governments to the collaboration prolonged the “project gridlock” and haven’t produced any benefits to the public.
“We attempted to raise awareness about the problematic nature of these conflicts and create opportunities for deeper understanding, but there was never a sincere commitment to healing and building the foundational relationships needed to move this project forward,” Kennedy wrote.
In contrast, she said, her tribe has made progress in its work at Willamette Falls in the last two years.
“As owners and hosts of the site, access for the public remains a top priority,” she wrote. “And we welcome and will actively seek input from all that have an interest in our Willamette Falls project.”
In a statement, Willamette Falls Trust Board Chair and Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians Tribal Councilman Robert Kentta said the partnership has been complex and challenging “with parties coming to the table with differing priorities and visions.”
Kentta said the partnership plans to continue working toward the project’s goal of creating an “exceptional experience” at Willamette Falls.
“While we are disappointed about the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde’s decision to abandon the process and withdraw from the partnership, we also must acknowledge that these negotiations among all of the stakeholders — both Indigenous people and others — is progress toward healing in and of itself.”
Kentta said the inclusion of all tribes “with deep spiritual, historical, cultural and legal connections to the falls” is important to the project.
“No one tribe is the sole caretaker of the Falls; all five tribes have historical connections to various places, including Willamette Falls — unique unto themselves —and shared histories relating to the Falls,” Kentta said. “It is not the prerogative of one tribe to say that others do not belong in such a place. It is not one tribe’s prerogative to tell the stories and interpret the connections of others to that place, try as they might.”
He said the partnership’s remaining members look forward to reimagining a public space “that reflects the diversity and complexity of the falls and its many histories — pointing us to the continuing lifeways that intersect at this sacred place.”
Gerard Rodriguez, director for tribal affairs for the Willamette Falls Trust, said a public easement on the former Blue Heron Mill property would allow the partnership’s public access project to proceed alongside the Grand Ronde tribes’ restoration and development plans.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the full name of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. OPB regrets the error.