Walking between the battered, old industrial buildings that used to be the Blue Heron Paper Mill, Cheryle Kennedy stopped at one of the few places where you can still see Willamette Falls.
But something else caught her eye on top of a building across the river.
“American flag,” the chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde said. “Almost like ‘keep out.’”
The Grand Ronde people lost nearly all of their land to broken treaties with the U.S. government and a termination policy that stripped the tribe of federal recognition in 1954.
“When I look at that flag, I see that I’m not welcome,” Kennedy said. “It’s a place of ownership to a nation that decided that they wanted to rid this land of me and my people.”
The land near Willamette Falls is a prominent example of how the Grand Ronde are reclaiming their place on Oregon’s landscape.
The tribes purchased the 23-acre Blue Heron Paper Mill site in 2019 with $15.29 million in profits from Spirit Mountain Casino, buying their way back to an area their ancestors were forced to leave after signing the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855.
Now, on a site that was surrounded by tribal villages before white settlers moved in, the Grand Ronde are moving quickly to demolish the industrial buildings that displaced them.
“Once all of this is down, we will be able to look at it differently,” Kennedy said. “This place needs healing. We all need healing. … We lived here and thrived, and as history moved forward, more and more was taken from us. It really makes you question your ability to live here in America, you know, supposedly the land of the free. No, that’s not true for us.”
The Willamette Falls site is among thousands of acres of land in the Willamette Valley the Grand Ronde tribes have purchased in recent years in an effort to reestablish traditional land management practices. They’ve developed programs to return cultural burning, native plants and Indigenous hunting and gathering practices to a landscape where housing, industry and agriculture have replaced key staples of their culture.
Through land purchases, donations and partnerships, the tribes are rolling back colonial developments to ensure tribal traditions continue.
Reconnecting with Willamette Falls
Kennedy’s family belongs to the Clackamas tribe, one of many folded into the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde following the 1855 treaties. Her ancestor, Chief Wacheno, signed the treaty for the Clackamas people, whose Kosh-huk-shix village was next to Willamette Falls.
Indigenous people in the Willamette Valley faced harassment and the threat of violence during colonization, and white settlers promised safety, reservation land, money, education and health care if the tribes agreed to sign treaties and leave their homeland.
But the settlers and American government broke the treaty promises. After the tribes left the falls, industrial development took over the site.
Over the past several years, demolition crews have torn down 23 of the 55 buildings at the former Blue Heron Paper Mill site, clearing the way for a new development called Tumwata Village.
Kennedy said the destruction is a form of healing.
“It’s been very difficult,” she said. “We used to be the owners from time immemorial of this place. Now it’s back into our ownership. …Our role here is to heal the land as best we can — healing ourselves because we are tied to the land.”
Tribal traditions depend on land
After signing treaties with the U.S. government, dozens of tribes gave up their ancestral homelands across Western Oregon and moved to the Grand Ronde reservation in the Coast Range.
There, members of the newly formed Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde were able to continue some of the cultural traditions tied to Oregon’s landscape.
On today’s 11,500-acre reservation, the tribes manage the land for cultural purposes — seeding native plants and gathering first foods such as camas bulbs, burning meadows for elk hunting, and pruning hazel trees for basketry — as well as growing profitable timber.
Grand Ronde tribal member and cultural adviser Bobby Mercier and his nephew Jordan Mercier have a long family history filled with basketry. Their ancestors made piles of baskets to sell in markets, and a photo of their relative Martha Jane Sands stretches across a whole wall of the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center in Grand Ronde.
On a trip to gather branches for basket-making on reservation forestland, they spoke to each other in a native language called Chinuk Wawa about their plans to trim the trees and cut their sticks for basketry at the same time.
“The language is what ties us to our old people,” Bobby Mercier said. “They say that’s how they recognize us, that’s how they hear us.”
Before they began their work, they faced the hazel trees and sang to give thanks. Then, they fanned out to do some pruning and collect long, straight sticks for weaving.
“We’ve been doing this since the beginning of time,” Bobby Mercier said. “Forever we’ve been making baskets.”
The Grand Ronde tribes haven’t always had reservation land to manage for their cultural traditions.
The tribes were terminated by the U.S. government in 1954 in the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act, which stripped away federal recognition and all reservation land — except a cemetery. It was part of a national effort to end tribal sovereignty and assimilate Native Americans into United States culture.
Losing their land put tribal traditions like basketry, hunting and gathering at risk.
“This is one thing — weaving with hazel sticks — a lot of our grandmas did and our great grandmas, and it was actually the way that we survived,” Jordan Mercier said. “This is just something unique and special that we have and, you know, it almost went away.”
Continuing traditions without land
Without land of their own, the Grand Ronde had to find other places where they could continue managing traditional plants and harvesting their first foods. That was hard as more and more of the land in the Willamette Valley got developed.
Grand Ronde tribal employees Greg Archuleta and Chris Rempel work with the U.S. Forest Service to manage a camas prairie in the Willamette National Forest, one of the landowners the tribes have partnered with over the years to maintain access to places with cultural value.
They monitor the plants, help remove invasive species and advocate for controlled burns to help maintain the prairie as Indigenous people have done for thousands of years.
“The camas is one of our first foods,” Archuleta said. “What’s happened today is that you have fewer and fewer places that are like this, especially within the main Willamette Valley, which has been converted to farms and housing, roads, etcetera.”
On one of their monitoring trips, Archuleta spotted a frog in a field full of purple camas blooms. Then, he saw some invasive blackberry.
“Should I get the clippers?” Rempel asked.
Soon after, they both started cutting away at the thorny bushes.
“Traditionally, it was thousands of people doing this work,” Rempel said, noting that the land itself is only one part of continuing ancient tribal traditions. “It’s a living culture being out here on the land. It’s not ‘Let’s protect the land.’ But the land also protects the culture.”
It’s slow work cutting the blackberry by hand, Archuleta said.
“Ideally we’d want fire on the landscape because we can do it a lot more efficiently,” he said. “That’s why I keep saying fire, fire, fire.”
Controlled fires clear away brush and kill invasive species while helping native plants like camas to thrive because its bulbs are underground. It’s a tool some Native American tribes have used throughout their history to manage the landscape, though for many years state and federal governments banned and even criminalized cultural burns.
The Grand Ronde tribes have a fire crew that works with the Forest Service on controlled burns, but the opportunities to burn on federal land are limited, so it’s been many years since the camas prairie in the Willamette National Forest has seen prescribed fire.
Restoration and reclamation
The U.S. government restored recognition of the Grand Ronde tribes in 1983, returning about 10,000 acres of reservation land.
But over the years, much of the land had been converted to agriculture, so it was dominated by nonnative species.
To reestablish native plants, the tribes built a nursery.
Grand Ronde tribal nursery manager Jeremy Ojua cultivates a long list of native plants so they can be planted on tribal properties, including serviceberry, native onion, yampa and native carrot, salmonberry, willow, red dogwood and mock orange.
“What we really wanted to do with the nursery here is focus on culturally significant species, so plants that are important to the tribes for either foods, medicine, tools, basketry,” he said. “Hopefully, over time with us growing these plants and then putting them back into our restoration sites, we’ll have places where tribal members can go and do traditional gathering.”
The tribes have also purchased land and accepted donations that add up to thousands of acres beyond their reservation acreage.
“I use the term re-acquired because the tribe has always been here on this landscape since time immemorial,” said Lindsay McClary, a restoration ecologist with the Grand Ronde tribes. “The tribe has been the historical caretaker of the Willamette Valley.”
McClary has a lot of restoration work to do because the landscape that used to be an oak prairie has been planted over with commercial timber and is riddled with invasive daisies and tansy ragwort.
To reestablish the oak savanna and prairie habitat on the Noble Oaks property, where oak trees can provide traditional foods like flour made with acorns, the tribe had to clear cut the Douglas fir trees and develop a long-term plan to mow invasives and replant across hundreds of acres.
“I feel like I’ve gotten extremely busy,” McClary said, noting that the number of acres she’s managing jumped by 1,000 in recent years. “We’re full-steam ahead in terms of acquisition.”
‘You’re not supposed to be able to do this’
Kennedy said as the Grand Ronde have purchased more land, they have encountered resistance that she attributes in part to bias against Native Americans.
“Some of the thoughts that dominant culture has about Native people are, ‘How in the world could they acquire and purchase this land? They’re the conquered foe. They’re supposed to stay down,’” she said. “That’s the thought: ‘You’re not supposed to be able to do this. How dare you come and sit at the table with us and be our equal?’”
The Grand Ronde tribes’ land purchase at Willamette Falls — as well as permitting of a disputed fishing platform at the base of the falls — have also stirred some controversy that Kennedy hasn’t shied away from.
Other tribes, including the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, have said they too have ancestral ties to Willamette Falls that give them rights to use the site.
Some of those tribes have challenged the Grand Ronde’s legal claims to the historic villages at Willamette Falls and have expressed concern that the Grand Ronde have bigger ambitions to expand their fishing rights and possibly develop a casino in the Portland metro area.
Kennedy has said neither fishing nor gambling will be part of the Tumwata Village development in Oregon City, and in an op-ed she accused other tribes of “trying to rewrite history.”
In an interview last year with OPB on the Tumwata Village property, Kennedy defended her position and noted her own family ties to a Clackamas village near Willamette Falls.
“My great, great grandfather was one of the treaty signers that signed,” she said. “Our village was right here. We’re not making that up.”
Kennedy said the Grand Ronde welcome all other tribes at Willamette Falls and are planning to develop a riverwalk so that everyone can access the falls.
Last year, following some disagreements, the Grand Ronde dropped out of an inter-tribal partnership with the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama and Siletz confederated tribes that are also planning to develop public access at Willamette Falls. That partnership, known as the Willamette Falls Trust, recently announced an agreement with Portland General Electric to study possible access to the falls from an island on the west side of the river.
The proposed Willamette Falls Inter-Tribal Public Access Project is being led by Indigenous communities and plans to integrate habitat restoration and cultural practices with public sites and other spaces for tribal members with ties to the falls.
Gerard Rodriguez, associate director of Willamette Falls Trust, said there is a seat at the table for the Grand Ronde should they decide to rejoin the partnership and another for the Nez Perce Tribe, which hasn’t yet joined.
“Many people from many different nations, many different cultures, have traveled here, gathered at this place, traded, fished for salmon, fished for eel, or Pacific lamprey,” Rodriguez said. “Being able to reclaim and protect places like this and have a living history — and a living future — is something that’s extremely important … for all Indigenous people.”
Weaving it all together
A year after gathering hazel shoots from reservation land, Jordan Mercier was able to start weaving with them. He soaked the sticks in water to make them pliable and worked them into one another as his family members have done throughout their history. Tribal members say the practice of cultural burning on the landscape produces straighter hazel sticks for basketry.
“There’s a lot that goes into it and a lot of different things that you have to know and do,” he said. “We all help each other with that, and I think in the same way a basket comes together, we come together. And we were able to maintain that connection that, honestly, people have tried to take away from us for a long time.”
He remembers his great, great, great grandmother Martha Jane Sands when he weaves. She was one of hundreds of Indigenous people who had to walk from Southern Oregon to the Grand Ronde reservation on a route that became known as the Rogue River Trail of Tears.
Now, he’s continuing her family tradition and sharing his knowledge with younger generations as a cultural educational coordinator for the Grand Ronde tribes.
“There’s been a lot of things trying to break us up as a community and as a people and we’ve overcome all those things,” he said. “We’re still honoring our past and working towards the future. Just like a basket, it’s a never-ending process.”