Tough-ass battle

Updated: May 1


Reservation-20150718-00466

This is a photo of the Wildhorse casino and hotel from somewhere else on the Rez. A different perspective. Blue Mountains in the distance. Wheat fields surround the area. Wheat is what the Tribes grow. Land is capitalized here, just as it is by my Jewish and Palestinian friends. The Land. Maybe that’s what happens when you long for something.

In 1855 the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla Tribes negotiated a peace treaty. It was a peace treaty because Article 2 guarantees the U.S. will supply arms and ammunition, so the Tribes can act as ally where necessary. Not many other Native treaties agree to arm the tribes. And the Tribes ceded 6.4 million acres to the U.S., in exchange for a reservation homeland of 250,000 acres, wisely reserving for the three Tribes land including three watersheds, and burial grounds. This wasn’t given to them, this was something they already had, and then reserved (I’m thinking hence the word reservation). They argued over reserving these rights for more than two weeks with States’ officials who wanted to send them north to live with the Yakima. In the end, with the threat of prolonged war hanging over the area, they ceded the 6.4 million acres. Then in the years to come, through a series of Land Acts which went against the Treaty, opening Reservation lands to sale to non-Indian settlers, farmers, and ranchers, the original 6.4 million acres which became 250,000 acres shriveled into today’s 172,000 acres, nearly half of which is owned by non-Indians. And if you look at a map of the Rez these days, it looks like a pixel checkerboard.


The Wildhorse casino revenue helps the CTUIR buy back this land, land that no one paid them for, but now they pay to re-acquire. So, as in this photo, the casino and the wheat are closely related. Land buy-back and education are the two top financial priorities, and increasing casino profits are earmarked for these goals. When the financial crisis hit, the Tribes bought surrounding ranches, offering “fair market prices” at first, then if that was refused, waiting for bankruptcy to bring the land back into the Tribal community lands.

For over a week now, I’ve been asking questions about governance style, youth participation, voice, visions for the future. And again and again I’ve heard, “People need to understand our perspective better.” In the Treaty of 1855 the Tribes reserved the rights to hunt, fish and gather on the 6.5 million acres that stretches across northeastern Oregon into southeastern Washington. They have a very vested interest in protecting the water, fish, and land of this area. “First in use, first in right” means Tribal claims have sometimes been upheld in the courts, so they negotiate with coal companies, agricultural interests, and water management authorities from a strong position. Though they could litigate, they prefer to negotiate. As mentioned in my previous post, “cooperation over confrontation” is part of the governance style. They strive for, and sometimes achieve, a win-win situation for all parties involved.


And this negotiating from a strong position, based on wise leadership, is a vein of gold I’m discovering runs through the generations. When I mentioned this to the leader of the Tribes who headed the negotiations that eventually brought salmon back to the Umatilla River, he said, “We’re tough, and pragmatic. It was a hell of a tough-ass battle.”

I’ve also heard that when Lewis and Clark came through in the early 1800s, the Tribes were extremely wealthy, controlling trade routes, and with huge herds of horses, more than 20,000. “The poverty of the last 150 years–your definition of poverty, not ours–was just a blip, and now we’re picking up where we left off. Seven generations is not so long at all.”

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