PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Two northwest tribes obtained a legal victory Thursday as the U.S. Department of Transportation is agreeing to put back a sacred site bulldozed in Clackamas County in 2008.
The site was north of US-26 near the Wildwood Recreation Site. ODOT widened the highway there for safety reasons and crews built new construction over where old-growth trees and a stone altar once stood.
The current agreement will require the U.S. Department of Transportation to place new trees and a new stone altar at the site.
The effort comes after tribal leaders of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde sued the government for bulldozing the burial site back in 2008 to widen U.S. Highway 26.
Luke Goodrich, the vice president and senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told KOIN 6 the case “began with a tragedy, with the needless destruction of a small Native American sacred site on the way up to Mount Hood.”
“Finally, when the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, with the bright lights of the Supreme Court shining on this case, the government came back to the negotiating table, and ultimately decided to do the right thing,” he said.
Per the landmark settlement agreement, the federal government promises to re-plant native trees – and fund the reconstruction of the sacred stone altar destroyed by the project. The government also agrees to restore access to the site for ceremonies – and recognizing its historic use by Native Americans.
“Unfortunately, the destruction that the government has worked here can never fully be undone,” Goodrich said. “And that that was heartbreaking when it happened 15 years ago, but what the plaintiffs, what the tribal members are asking for here is, ‘Let’s try, as far as possible to restore it, to try to make it right.'”
Goodrich said that while the damage can’t be undone, this agreement is a step in the right direction. Tribal leaders have been fighting for their rights to the land and the restoration of the site for years, including in this 2015 video
“We’ve always taken care of this land, while taking care of our burial sites because that’s what we were charged with through our creator, to take care of them, and make sure they weren’t disturbed,” said Chief Wilbur Slockish of the Klickitat/Cascade Tribe of the Yakama Nation.
Not all on the front lines would live to see the fruits of their labor, including the late Chief Johnny Jackson, who died in 2020.
“They shouldn’t be disturbed, and yet they’re doing it without any regard,” Chief Jackson said. “Because to them it’s just a piece of land.”
But tribal leaders like Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde were able to celebrate the victory on Thursday.
“Sacred sites like Ana Kwna Nchi Nchi Patat are irreplaceable to tribal people and their preservation and protection is something that we should all care about,” Kennedy said. “We’d like to congratulate all the individuals who came together to take on this challenge and we are excited to see the site restored”
KOIN 6 has reached out to the U.S. Department of Transportation but hasn’t heard back.
“We as a society, as a government, as a legal system, we should be bending over backwards looking for ways to protect the ability of Native Americans to engage in their traditional religious and cultural practices on their ancestral lands,” Goodrich said. “And that’s what this case does, and that’s what the government should be doing on into the future.”