and Nika Bartoo-Smith, Underscore + ICT
This story is co-published by Underscore News, ICT and High Country News.
The second-largest waterfall in North America is 20 minutes south of downtown Portland, Oregon. Most Portlanders have never heard of it.
To get to Willamette Falls, you first need permission from Portland General Electric, one of the landowners whose property lines the banks of the Willamette River. This is still an industrial landscape, so you’ll also need a hard hat and bright green safety vest. Heat radiates off the pavement amid the beeps and thuds of heavy machinery. The grinding whir of the hydroelectric turbines leads you to a half-decommissioned paper mill that was only recently stripped of asbestos and lead.
Beyond the hazardous zone, there’s a narrow path outlined with green tape. Follow it carefully. An old wooden walkway opens onto a view of the Willamette Falls, and suddenly, the roar of the falls drowns out all other noise. There’s a small strip of wetlands on the west side of the walkway, where a great blue heron leans into the wind before taking off. To the east lies the flat expanse of the reservoir, stretching glassily toward the disappearing point, where it tumbles over the half-mile curve of the horseshoe-shaped falls.
But this view is accessible only via a private tour led by Portland General Electric (PGE). Many of the tribal members who have ancestral ties to the falls have never heard the roar of the water, never felt its mist kiss their face. The general public sees only a distant view from I-205.
Now, however, all this may be changing, thanks to the financial support of private and public donors, and the guidance of local tribal nations.
On June 29, the Willamette Falls Trust announced that — after four years of discussion about the best way to honor the tribes’ connections to the falls and restore both tribal and public access — it has signed an agreement with PGE to conduct a formal site study. The Trust is an intertribal organization that works with private and government partners to preserve and restore sacred sites, such as the falls.
“Our vision is to secure public access to Willamette Falls that is free, inclusive and brings healing to this sacred place for the many generations to come,” said Robert Kentta, board chair of the Willamette Falls Trust, Siletz delegate and cultural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. “This agreement marks an important first step toward elevating the cultures and lifeways of the many Indigenous people with connections to the land and water that have sustained us for millennia. It will give all people a deeper sense of place in this incredible cultural landscape." (Full disclosure: Nika Bartoo-Smith’s father, Zeke Smith, is a member of the Willamette Falls Trust board of directors.)
A vision grounded in Indigenous lifeways
Two years ago, a boat of elders from the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs traveled to the base of Willamette Falls. They held a ceremony, sending prayers into the mist.
According to Gerard Rodriguez, it was the first time in over 150 years that elders from the four tribes had come together at the falls, to speak in their own languages and send the water their blessings. Rodriguez (Yaqui and Nahua) is the associate director and director of tribal affairs at the Willamette Falls Trust.
“I’ve heard elders tell me that the sound of the water, the sound of the wind, that’s one of the last things you hear before you pass over to the other side,” Rodriguez said
Willamette Falls has been a gathering site for tribes in the region since time immemorial. Then the white settlers came, and, in 1829, John McLoughlin founded Oregon City, just south of the future city of Portland. And with colonization came industrialization; the falls were commandeered and nearly smothered by industry. By the late 1880s, the Willamette Falls Electric Company, a predecessor of PGE, had dammed the falls, and paper mills lined both sides of the river. For nearly a century and a half, the falls were hidden and obscured.
The Trust hopes to make Willamette Falls a gathering place once more, with a series of walkways flowing alongside of the river, the falls towering overhead. Architectural mockups envision Native teaching gardens that will offer first foods and first medicines to be harvested by local tribes. Native art and designs will adorn the path, telling stories about the falls’ cultural and ancestral significance. There will be spaces to gather for ceremony and powwows. Above all, there will be direct access to the river.
“Our member tribes guide the vision of this place and have always guided the vision of what takes place at Willamette Falls, since time immemorial,” Rodriguez said. “The vision of this project is grounded in Indigenous lifeways. It centers Indigenous voices, and it’s part of a reclamation of being able to have that connection to land once again.”
The agreement allows the trust to run a yearlong feasibility study to assess visions of permanent tribal access to Moore’s Island – PGE’s property at the falls. The study will also weigh the possibility of the Trust acquiring a portion of the island from PGE. The landscape will not return to the way it was; the dam will continue to operate until at least 2035, when PGE says it plans to renew its license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Willamette Falls Paper Company is licensed to operate until 2034. But people will once again have access to the waterfall.
“Most of what this project is, and what it’s going to be, is remediation,” Rodriguez said. “It’s peeling back the concrete. That, and being able to do something as simple as touch the water.”
Tribal leadership ‘essential’
The Willamette Falls Trust was launched in 2015, as the community engagement and fundraising arm of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project.
“It was very clear to us from the beginning that, if we were going to do a public access project, that this place was essential to have engagement, if not leadership, from the tribes,” said Andrew Mason, executive director of the Willamette Falls Trust.
At first, Mason said, the Trust’s partners suggested a tribal advisory group.
“That did not seem like enough to our organization,” Mason said. “And so we invited leadership from five sovereign nations to join our board of directors. Five nations: Yakama, Siletz, Umatilla, Grand Ronde and Warm Springs all joined our board of directors.”
In 2019, Grand Ronde bought a 23-acre site along the east side of the falls. The nation plans to transform the former Blue Heron Paper Company site into Tumwata Village, and, with extensive environmental remediation efforts, create tribal access to the falls. There, the tribe will publicly present its history and living identity. Development plans show a proposal for riverfront cultural and event space, along with a shopping district and possibly a hotel.
Then, in 2021, Grand Ronde withdrew from the Trust. In 2022, it also left the Legacy Project.
Still, Rodriguez said, “Every federally recognized tribe with an interest in the falls has a seat at the tribal leadership committee.”
Grand Ronde spokeswoman Sara Thompson said the tribe is focused on cleaning up the site so it can welcome people back to the falls as soon as possible.
"As caretakers of tumwata village and the falls, we welcome the opportunity to work with partners on more public access to the falls,” Thompson said. “Our goal, guided by our vision of restoration and revitalization, has always been increased public access to the falls. We look forward to working with local stakeholders, the trust and the tribes and seeing the results of the feasibility study."
Meanwhile, the Trust has kept working toward tribal access for the other tribes with cultural, legal and historical ties to the falls.
“Fortunately, with the leadership of each of those nations, we have continued to collect and craft values and opportunities,” Mason said. “We continued the conversation that we had also been doing with Portland General Electric and said, ‘What about the west side?’”
Those conversations bore fruit on Thursday, June 29, with the formal agreement between the Trust and PGE to move forward with a site study to create permanent public access on the island on the west side of the falls.
“The drive in doing this is to restore access for the people who have stewarded this land since time immemorial,” Rodriguez said. “There will be places where others can also experience (the falls) as well, but it’s ultimately for those tribal communities.”
Lead image: Willamette Falls, is a horseshoe shaped waterfall and the second largest by volume in the United States and holds ancestral and cultural significance to 5 tribes that have been here since time immemorial, but since the 1800s, colonization led to the privatization of the falls. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)
Correction: This story describes a half-decommissioned building recently stripped of asbestos and lead. The building was a paper mill, not part of the hydroelectric plant owned by Portland General Electric. Underscore News regrets the error.