PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – For more than 150 years, one of Oregon’s greatest landmarks has remained largely hidden from the public. It also happens to be the second-largest waterfall on the continent.
Straddling Oregon City and West Linn, the Willamette Falls have remained shrouded by industrial buildings despite the land’s natural beauty and cultural significance to local tribes. But a new agreement between the Willamette Falls Trust and Portland General Electric hopes to change that.
The joint project aims to public access to the falls by centering the indigenous communities that have been connected to its land for generations.
“Willamette Falls is always a place where our people went to collect not only salmon but also Pacific lamprey…has always been a food gathering place,” said Davis “Yellowash” Washines, a Yakama Nation Tribal Representative, with the Department of Natural Resources. “And for that reason, it is considered a special, sacred place.”
Gerard Rodriguez is the associate director of the Willamette Falls Trust and director of tribal affairs. Since 2015 the non-profit organization has worked to restore public access to the falls, while centering the voices of local tribes, including 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.
Rodriguez told KOIN 6 the new agreement greenlights a one-year feasibility study for a public access project – allowing the trust to assess a portion of PGE’s land on the west side of Willamette Falls.
“To be able to protect this place which is so special, and most importantly, to be able to peel back the layers of industry, return human access to this place, so that we can protect those species, so that we can bring back all of the different plant life, bring back all of the different stories, and cultures, and the traditions of this place,” Rodriguez said.
The trust has already set aside $15 million in funding in addition to the nearly $40 million in public funds available for a project like this.
“The different walkways, the gathering areas all are going to be representative of the indigenous lifeways and the practices that have been taking place on this land for countless generations,” Rodriguez said. “When we think about that, we are not only looking towards the legacy of this place in the past, but also the legacy of this place moving forward into the future.”
Davis “Yellowash” Washines also said the commitment to indigenous-led design and centering tribal voices are at the heart of this project.
“We bring that history and bring that understanding of the importance…being able to participate – for too long tribes have not been able to have a voice in a lot of things in this country,” he said.
The potential site will also create educational opportunities as well as public spaces.
In response to the new partnership, PGE told KOIN 6: “This agreement reflects our recognition of the area’s immense importance and is consistent with our goal to provide safe access to federally recognized northwest tribes to support traditional cultural practices at the falls.”
While Rodriguez told KOIN 6 that many other communities across the nation face similar struggles to have their voices heard and maintain culturally-specific sites, he said the tribes have a slightly different story, saying “it is one of return, it is one of bringing back and reestablishing that connection – which we know was never broken.”
“But the facilitation of that, the actual healing of the landscape. That’s the type of return that we’re talking about,” Rodriguez said. “So we’re bringing back the languages, the songs, different things that the land understands and resonates and that it hasn’t heard in so many generations.”