Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited the Spokane Indian Reservation on Thursday, where he pledged to support compensation for Grand Coulee Dam’s impact on the tribe’s lands and traditional livelihood.
The massive dam was built without fish ladders more than 75 years ago, cutting off critical salmon runs to the Spokane and upper Columbia rivers. Tribal lands were flooded, forcing families to leave homes and farms.
“I like the challenge of some of these older wrongs that need to be righted,” Zinke said at a press conference following a 90-minute meeting with the Spokane Tribe’s council.
“Clearly, in my opinion, the tribe was wronged,” said Zinke, who oversees relationships between the federal government and Native American tribes. “I support getting to a conclusion on this.”
The former Montana congressman met with tribal leaders during a 24-hour road trip across Washington. Zinke, who is an adopted member of the Assiniboine Sioux Tribe, said the meetings were a chance “to put a face with the nation.”
Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe, presented Zinke with “gifts from the heart” and thanked him for the visit. He accepted moose and elk jerky, huckleberry jam and a string tie beaded with the image of a war bonnet.
Zinke planned to stop at Grand Coulee Dam – his first visit there – on the way to a meeting with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. His trip was scheduled to end Friday on the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham.
Zinke also used the meetings to talk about the effect of the opioid epidemic in Indian Country. The Department of Interior can help tribes combat drug dealing through cooperative law enforcement actions, said Zinke, who also met this week with tribes in Arizona and Wisconsin on the opioid issue.
Community-based treatment for addicts is critical, he added.
“It has to be culturally relevant, and it has to be targeted to the kids, the moms and the grandmas,” Zinke said. Many tribes are matriarchal. “When the population of moms and grandmas are addicted … the fabric of the tribe begins to fall apart.”
Glenn Ford, a member of the Spokane Tribe’s council, said he came away from the meeting impressed with Zinke’s knowledge of issues important to tribes.
“I’ve seen him on TV, but I’d never met him in person,” he said.
Zinke’s support for a Grand Coulee Dam settlement also pleased council members.
In 1994, with the help of then-House Speaker Tom Foley, the Colville Tribe received a $53 million settlement, plus annual payments based on power production and prices. In contrast, the Spokane Tribe received an initial payment of $4,700 for damage caused by the dam, but has not been able to renegotiate the settlement.
Under legislation sponsored last year by U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, the Spokane Tribe would have received a $53 million settlement compensating the tribe for the use of its lands for decades of hydropower production.
In February, however, the bill was amended. If passed, the Spokane Tribe would receive annual payments for the use of its submerged lands beginning in 2020.
Settlement legislation has been introduced every year since 2000, but has never passed in both the Senate and the House.
Scott Wheat, an attorney for the Spokane Tribe, said older relatives from his wife’s family often talked about how Grand Coulee Dam changed the river.
Fred Samuels, one of the elders, had a picture of himself with a huge chinook salmon strapped on his horse. He caught the salmon in the lower Spokane River before Grand Coulee’s construction blocked the runs.
“They may not have had a lot of economic opportunity off of the reservation,” Wheat said, “but they had an abundance of resources to provide for themselves.”
This story was updated on March 27 to reflect February amendments to the proposed settlement legislation.
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