The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde are working to lift state restrictions on tribal fishing and hunting imposed by a controversial agreement nearly 40 years ago.
Federal legislation backed by several members of Oregon’s congressional delegation would overturn a consent decree that tribal members say was forced upon them in the 1980s.
Grand Ronde tribal member and ceremonial fisher Sara Thompson told OPB’s Think Out Loud this week that federal termination took the tribes’ reservation land away, and to get any of it back, the state gave the tribes an ultimatum.
“That was basically, ’Sign the consent decree or forgo having any sort of reservation land,’” she said. “The choice was the consent decree or remain a landless people.”
The tribes were stripped of their land and federal status in 1954 when Congress passed the Western Oregon Termination Act. In the 1980s, the tribes signed agreements with the federal and state governments that restored their federal status and gave them some land on reservations.
But the tribes could only be restored if they agreed to give up their fishing and hunting rights outside of the reservation through a consent decree.
Thompson said Senate Bill 3126 – sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat – would allow the tribes to renegotiate the right to manage hunting and fishing seasons on tribal land as a sovereign nation.
“Under the current regulations, my family that are tribal members cannot hunt in the same areas that our ancestors did, and that’s a blow,” Thompson said. “I see the consent decree as this gray cloud hanging over Grand Ronde sovereignty.”
Bobby Mercier, a ceremonial hunter with the Grand Ronde tribes, said the land restored to the tribes after signing the consent decree represented a small fraction of the roughly 66,000 acres lost through termination.
And that area was an even smaller fraction of the land the tribes had lived on historically, Mercier said.
“Going from pretty much all of Western Oregon to just this little tiny square out here and then to have nothing,” Mercier told Think Out Loud host Dave Miller. “To have 9,000 acres given back to us … I guess some people call it a start. I don’t call it much.”
Mercier said the chiefs who signed tribal treaties did so with the understanding that their people would still be able to hunt and fish in their usual and customary places.
Those places “had pretty much become part of our DNA,” Mercier said. “Our grandfathers and grandmothers have forever been buried in those places.”
But today, if tribal members want to fish and hunt in those places, Mercier said, they have to ask the state of Oregon for a permit.
“To not be able to go and to hunt or fish somewhere that’s been part of our DNA and who we are as a people is a little frustrating,” Mercier said.
Mercier said his ancestors signed the original treaties that were supposed to protect tribal fishing and hunting rights.
“I imagine if they knew their great grandkids were going to be treated this way, they would have never signed those treaties in the first place,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader and Suzanne Bonamici, all Oregon Democrats, support Merkley’s legislation. The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians were subject to a similar consent decree, and Merkley is sponsoring a separate bill to rescind that agreement.