PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As the second most powerful waterfall in North America, the historic Willamette Falls site has remained inaccessible to the public for over 100 years — but that is soon expected to change as the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde began their second round of demolition in Oregon City this month.

After the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (CTGR) purchased the former Blue Heron Paper Mill site in 2019, the Tribe quickly broke ground on the first round of demolition in September of 2021.

This newly launched second stage of demolition at the 23-acre site began April 4, and is slated to remove four more structures within an eight-week period, including the water filtration plant, millwright shop, auto shop, and carpentry shop, all of which are currently visible from Oregon City’s Main Street.

But for Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy of the CTGR, this progress is about more than tearing down buildings and repairing the land — it is also about repairing old wounds and restoring what had been previously taken.

“In our hearts, the land never did leave us,” Kennedy stated. “I’m part of the Clackamas Tribe, the peoples that lived here for thousands of years. My grandfathers were the treaty signers for this land here. So even though we weren’t present and living on it, we knew that faith in our Creator would return and restore it to us.”

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde at the Willamette Falls
(Courtesy of Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde)

Kennedy told KOIN 6 News that although it has taken several years — and lots of money — for the land to be returned to Indigenous hands, the new progress brings the CTGR one step closer to materializing the Tribe’s vision of healing, connection, and public access to Willamette Falls.

“This was a place of commerce and of gathering from time immemorial,” Kennedy explained. “We welcomed all of our neighboring tribes, they came, they fished, we had potlatches, exchanged gifts. But as the caretakers of this place we knew that the fish and the resources here were for us to share with others.”

Kennedy added, “That continues. So, that principle is embedded in how we see the access being returned to people to witness, to feel. Because it is a spiritual place, they will be renewed. There is a lot of power here and we want to share that.”

According to the CTGR, some of the buildings which are slated to be demolished during this round of the project will make way for “one of the site’s main gathering places for the public and Tribal Members alike.”

The Tribe expects permits for the site’s auto and carpentry shops to be approved by the city by April 15.

The second round of demolition comes after the CTGR announced in March that the Tribe would pull out of an intergovernmental, inter-tribal agreement meant to build a public walkway with the Willamette Falls Legacy Project partners.

“The journey that we’re on, wants to be inclusive, and we tried that for years,” Kennedy said. “After more than two years of a huge struggle about how to move forward, who should have say — it was to the point that it was disrespectful, like it wasn’t our property.”

While Kennedy said the Tribe has not completely shut the door on its former partners and is willing to welcome their ideas, she told KOIN 6 News the CTGR was forced to fully step into their role as owners and caretakers of this homeland in order to see the kind of progress the site requires.

Willamette Falls Plan Graphic Looking North 2021 (Courtesy: The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde)

“We’re going to go ahead and take our rightful seat as owners and get things moving,” Kennedy said. “And if folks want to still be party to that, we welcome to talk with you, we’ll listen to your ideas.”

The Tribe revealed its vision for the site in March of last year, which prioritizes environmental and cultural restoration alongside the restoration of the new development.

According to the CTGR, the demolition efforts are slated to continue over the next few years, and while the first stage of the demolition process moved very quickly, Kennedy was hesitant to disclose a timeline for when the massive project might be finished, stating, “as we say, with the blessings of our Creator things will move fast –but government doesn’t move fast.”

Given the lengthy process of acquiring additional permits and licenses, Kennedy told KOIN 6 News the Tribe hopes the region in Oregon City will see a transformation within the next 10 years.

“The eventual goal is that this will be a place of retail, of gathering, of business, of commerce. All of that is in the works for this community that we love,” Kennedy explained. “We can feel we share the earth, the ground here. So, it’s very deep, it’s spiritual. And the healing has to take place, not only of the lands, but of our heart and our spirit, things that were taken from us, all of us.”