Grand Ronde tribe reclaims Willamette Falls, work begins at Oregon City plant



After a private blessing and prayer, the Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde invited the assembled media to watch an excavator tear through a wall of the old abandoned stationery which the tribe says has been on their ancestral lands for too long.

The tribe this week hosted a symbolic demolition event at the former Blue Heron Paper Mill in Willamette Falls, a small step towards removing the industrial site and returning it to Indigenous hands.

Chris Mercier, vice president of the Grand Ronde Tribal Council, said the tribe is trying to reclaim as much of their traditional land as possible. The acquisition of the land in Willamette Falls is the biggest step in that direction, he said.

“This site here is of deep historical and cultural significance,” said Mercier. “The fact that we bought it and now own it is kind of a dream come true for many of us and many of our tribal members because our roots run deep here. “

The lands around Willamette Falls were once home to the villages of Clowewalla and Kosh-huk-shix of the Clackamas people, who ceded the land to the US government under the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855 before being forcibly relocated and relocated , according to the confederate tribes. of the Grand Rond.

For generations, the falls have also been frequented by residents of other indigenous villages in the area, most notably the Chinookan people of the lower Columbia River, who today are represented by several different tribal bodies.

Le Grand Ronde calls Willamette Falls “tumwata”, which is the Chinook jargon for waterfall, and calls the river “walamt”. Each year, Oregon tribesmen visit the waterfall to harvest lamprey – a prehistoric eel-like creature that has been caught there for thousands of years – as well as salmon and other fish.

A privileged place for the tribe and the public

Located on the Willamette River in Oregon City, Willamette Falls has long been one of Oregon’s best and least accessible natural wonders, with public access blocked by the paper mill which closed in 2011.

In 2019, the Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde purchased the land, valued at $ 2.9 million, and earlier this year the tribe presented an ambitious vision that would transform the site of the old mill into a community center where visitors could walk along the river, dine at a restaurant, spend the night, or attend an event. The plans also include space for tribe members to hold ceremonies near the waterfall.

Grande Ronde Tribal Council chief of staff Stacia Hernandez told Tuesday’s event that the vision will likely take years to materialize. Hopefully the property will be cleaned up and safe for the public within two to three years, she said, although other buildings are expected to take longer to complete.

An aerial view of Willamette Falls and the former Blue Heron Stationery (right).

When complete, however, the Willamette Falls site promises to be a special place for tribesmen and the general public.

“We want it to be a very welcoming and inviting place and we want people to have a real experience when they come here,” said Hernandez. “We don’t want it to be a place to show up and have a cup of coffee and leave, we want people to be able to experience it and feel the falls.”

Progress and collaboration on the project

In total, the site can accommodate up to 300,000 square feet of new buildings, the tribe said, and would be a natural extension of downtown Oregon City. Current plans call for Main Street to simply be extended into the newly developed area.

The plans are similar to those previously developed by the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, a collaborative partnership between Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro and the State of Oregon. The partnership formally organized in 2014 to find a way to provide public access to Willamette Falls and had previously secured an easement on the property to create a river walk.

“We are excited about the progress being made on the Blue Heron site,” said Carrie Belding, spokesperson for the Willamette Falls Legacy Project. “We support the vision of the Confederate Grand Ronde Tribes and look forward to continuing to work together. “

Now the Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, and the Willamette Falls Trust (a non-profit organization tasked with raising funds for the planned river walk) are all working together on the project. The first phase of the Riverwalk project is estimated at $ 65 million, according to the trust, and so far $ 28 million has been raised from public and private funds. An additional $ 20 million in public funding is earmarked for the entire project, as part of the Metro Parks and Nature Bond adopted by voters in 2019.

In August, this collaboration expanded to include four other tribal governments with ancestral ties to Willamette Falls: Confederate Tribes of the Siletz Indians, Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs, and Tribes and Confederate Bands of the Yakama Nation. .

Heavy equipment tears the siding of a building Tuesday as Confederate Grand Ronde tribes marked the start of on-site work at the former Blue Heron paper mill in Willamette Falls in Oregon City.

Gerard Rodriguez, associate director of the Willamette Falls Trust, said the recent influx of Indigenous voices has created a new “expanded table” when it comes to determining who will determine the future of Willamette Falls, and thankfully all of them. parties involved seem to agree on what should be done.

“There is general support for the vision that the Grand Ronde presented in the spring of 2021,” said Rodriguez, as well as plans initially proposed by the Willamette Falls Legacy Project in 2017. “The alignment of these two plans is a necessary part of the move to move the project forward and create a shared vision.

Both plans provide for public access, as well as extensive environmental rehabilitation of the area by removing industrial structures and restoring habitat for salmon, lamprey and other aquatic species.

“A chance for us to tell our story”

Tuesday’s event was sort of a groundbreaking event that represents one of the clearest steps forward in Willamette Falls in nearly a decade of planning.

“We are excited to share this place with people,” Hernandez said. “For us, this is an opportunity not only to come home and take this place back, but to make it better and leave it better for future generations.

In addition to its cultural significance, Willamette Falls ranks among Oregon’s most impressive waterfalls with an average volume of about 32,000 cubic feet per second during the rainy season, more than 200 times the Multnomah Falls flow.

Visitors hoping to see the falls will now find no public access points along the Willamette River, although the waterfall is visible from a vantage point on the Oregon 99E side and from the McLoughlin Parkway in Oregon City. For years, the best way for the general public to see Willamette Falls up close has been on one of the many boat trips that sail up the Willamette River.

With the purchase and redevelopment of the former Blue Heron site by the Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde, there will soon be not only good public access, but also a chance for Indigenous communities to once again have a strong presence. year round at Willamette Falls, the tribe mentioned.

“It’s a chance for us to tell our story,” said Mercier. “What we do here will reflect the value and mission of this tribe. “


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