WELLPINIT, WASHINGTON – At 95 years old, Viola Frizzell can remember when, as a young girl, the lands of her ancestors were flooded by the waters rerouted by the Grand Coulee Dam.
She remembers how the people of the Spokane Tribe, many of them forced to relocate their homes, were hired to dig up gravesites and relocate them to dry land.
“That was the hardest for us to watch,” Frizzell said.
On Thursday, during a ceremony in Wellpinit mixed with joy and sadness, the Spokane Tribe of Indians marked the adoption of federal legislation that will compensate the tribe for 2,500 acres of land lost to the reservoir created by the dam.
Harnessing the power of the Columbia River, the Grand Coulee Dam brought low-cost electricity to thousands of people in the Northwest when it became operational in 1941. But its construction flooded lands traditionally held by the Spokane Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
The dam wiped away the salmon population that had sustained the Spokane people as well as the traditional spiritual and cultural customs that had revolved around it. Water encroached on and flooded gravesites, orchards, gardens and homes, forcing many with deep ties to the land to pack up and relocate.
“We shed a tear of joy today, but we also shed a tear of sadness for what our people went through,” said Jim SiJohn, a Spokane Tribe elder.
Signed into law in December, the Spokane Reservation Equitable Compensation Act brought the Spokanes in line with payments made to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The Colvilles were similarly impacted by the dam’s development but received compensation decades earlier because they pursued it from Congress.
Under the legislation, the Spokane Tribe will receive payments of about $6 million per year for the first decade, followed by $8 million every year after that. Those figures are not exact as they are tied to revenues generated by the Bonneville Power Administration.
“We’ve come to the day when we can at least have some semblance of justice for what they endured,” said Carol Evans, Spokane Tribal Council chairwoman, of the tribe’s ancestors. “They endured a lot so that we can be here today.”
Marsha Wynecoop and Paulette Noble shared stories of their mother, Marian Wynecoop, who testified in support of just compensation for the Spokane Tribe in Washington, D.C.
Marian Wynecoop was raised on the reservation and later recounted to her daughters that when construction began on the dam, it impacted her family’s fields of watermelon, where they would host events that would draw people from “miles around.”
“She told me that she sat uphill from the river and could see the water rising, and it made her sad because her family was losing everything they had,” Noble said.
The family later had a house built elsewhere. “It was never a home, but it would have to do,” Noble recalled.
The payments to the Spokane Tribe will be made from revenue garnered by the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that sells electricity generated by the Grand Coulee Dam. The payments will not be made directly by federal taxpayers.
Unlike the Colvilles, the Spokane Tribe did not receive a lump sum upfront in addition to the annual payments. The Spokanes had about a third as much land impacted by the dam’s development as the Colvilles.
Although the construction of the dam cost more than $270 million, the Spokane Tribe was initially paid just $4,700 for its land. The Colville tribes, at the time, were paid $63,000.
The Colvilles later pursued action against the government, and in 1994 Congress approved an upfront payment of $53 million and annual payments of about $15.2 million from BPA revenues.
The Spokane Tribe has yet to design a budget plan for the funding, but plans to do so this spring at a meeting with its general membership, according to Evans.
The tribe’s members have many needs, Evans said. Its unemployment rate is falling but still remains at 39%. Many have health needs that go unaddressed, and others struggle with housing.
“We have a lot of needs,” Evans said. “We just have to put the budget package together.”
Despite boosting the tribe’s future financial stability, the new funding does not right historical wrongs.
“We lost the salmon, and the salmon is what sustained our ancestors,” said Evans, noting that tribal leaders will continue their fight to bring the fish back along with cultural customs based on its presence.
Greg Abrahamson, vice chairman of the Spokane Tribe Business Council, said the worst part of the long fight for compensation was speaking to elders who believed they would not live long enough to see it.
“They were right,” Abrahamson said.
Frizzell noted many of those who endured the hardships caused by the Grand Coulee Dam “all left me.”
“They’re on the other side waiting,” Frizzell said. “And I’ll get there too – after I get my money.”