WASHINGTON – Nearly 70 years after completion of the Grand Coulee Dam, members of the Spokane Tribe argued before a Senate committee last week that they have a moral right to compensation for its impact on their traditional livelihood.
The Spokane and Columbia rivers used to contain salmon runs critical to the tribe, but the dam was built without fish ladders and cut off the salmon supply. Flooding of the dam’s reservoir, Lake Roosevelt, destroyed tribal schools, roads and sacred sites, and forced families to relocate. The lake continues to fluctuate by 70 feet or more in depth every year.
“We continue to survive, but the time has come for the United States to recognize the profound effect the construction of Grand Coulee Dam has had on us,” Spokane Tribe Chairman Gregory Abrahamson said.
In 1994, with the help of then-House Speaker Tom Foley, the Colville Tribe received a settlement of $53 million, plus annual payments based on power production and prices. By contrast, the Spokanes received $4,700 in return for the damage from the dam and, unlike the Colvilles, have not been permitted to renegotiate the settlement.
“It is an injustice that the Spokane tribe has not received fair and equitable compensation for suffering from similar damage,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
If passed, the legislation would award $99.5 million over five years to the Spokane Tribe for damages. The tribe would also receive compensation for future use proportional to 29 percent of what the Colville Tribe received in settlement payments.
Similar legislation has been introduced every year since 2000. In 2003, it passed in the Senate but was not considered in the House. In 2005, it passed in the House, but objections by the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Lincoln County commissioners stalled it in the Senate.
“The United States promised to compensate us, but continues to change its position and creates more obstacles in an effort to avoid reaching an agreement,” Abrahamson said.
The funds granted by the legislation would be used by the tribe to construct a cultural resource center, which would house burial remains and cultural resources affected by the dam and provide a tribal culture educational facility. Funds also would be used for education scholarships and economic development for the tribe.
The Spokane Tribe has proposed a casino on the West Plains, where the Kalispel Tribe already operates Northern Quest Resort & Casino.
The Department of Interior came out against the bill, saying the “settlement of claims” language used was inappropriate because the Spokane Tribe does not have a legal claim for compensation. The agency also thought language regarding tribal law enforcement was too broad and could be construed to delegate more than just the authority intended by the tribe.
Abrahamson said members of the tribe felt blindsided by Interior because the tribe had worked closely with the agency and thought they had its support.