Last of western Oregon tribes reach agreement to hunt, fish on ancestral lands without state permit

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at

Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde can now hunt and fish on a larger swath of their ancestral homelands without state permits. 

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-3 to enter into agreement Friday with the tribe that restores tribal members’ ability to hunt and fish for ceremony and subsistence in five of the state’s 67 wildlife units without a state permit. The tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Department can now issue its own tags and licenses for hunting and fishing in those areas.

“It’s about sovereignty,” said Sara Thompson, a tribal member and spokesperson. “It’s the ability to harvest under a tribal tag, under a tribal license, throughout this portion of our homelands.” 

It makes Grand Ronde the last of five federally recognized, western Oregon-based tribes to enter into such an agreement with the state, and is part of the commission’s larger goal to make agreements with all nine of the federally recognized, Oregon-based tribes. 

The agreement with Grande Ronde faced opposition from some Columbia River tribes who said the state fish and wildlife department and commission should have consulted at greater length with them. They fear that the agreement infringes on their treaty rights to some fishing and hunting grounds newly accessible to Grand Ronde members.

Under the new agreement, Grand Ronde’s 5,400 enrolled members can harvest finfish, lamprey, shellfish and crustaceans, mammals and birds in the Wilson, Trask, Willamette, Stott Mountain and Santiam wildlife management units. The tribe’s Natural Resources Department manager, Colby Drake, said he estimates 200 to 300 tribal members will take advantage of the permits annually. Parts of the Columbia River upstream of Bonneville Dam, the Cascade Mountain Range summit and areas east of the summit are off limits to Grand Ronde members due to exclusive rights of other tribes. 

Grand Ronde previously had site-specific agreements with the state fish and wildlife department to harvest shellfish and to fish at Willamette Falls.

Delayed decision

Grand Ronde leaders had thought the agreement with the state would be finalized during a late June meeting of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, where two other tribes entered into agreements to have hunting and fishing permits and territory restored. Two other tribes had also entered into expanded territory and permitting agreements with the state, leaving just Grand Ronde left. Instead, on the day before the meeting the commission said it needed more time to deliberate specifically on the agreement with Grand Ronde given concerns from the Columbia River tribes. 

Corrine Sams, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and chair of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, testified against the Grand Ronde agreement Aug. 4.

She told the state fish and wildlife commission that it and the state fish and wildlife agency had failed to adequately consult with Columbia River tribes.

“If you are being told that consultation has occurred and our tribes are merely unhappy with the result — that is false,” Sands said. 

“The broad geographic scope of this has the potential to impact the treaty reserved rights of the treaty tribes,” she said. 

Grand Ronde leaders pushed back on the argument from other tribes that its members were infringing on any other tribes’ rights. 

“This agreement does not affect any other tribe. It is not about treaty rights. It’s about an agreement with the state of Oregon,” Cheryl Kennedy, chair of the Grand Ronde, told the commission at the Aug. 4 meeting. 

Reclaiming ancestral lands

The ancestral home of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde ranges from Southwest Washington though Western Oregon and Northern California, according to the tribe’s website.

But in 1856, the federal government forced member tribes onto a 60,000-acre reservation in the Coast Range and modern Yamhill County. 

Then, in 1954, the U.S. Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower terminated Grand Ronde’s treaty rights, and those of 61 other tribes, with the passage of the Western Oregon Termination Act. It was part of a policy of termination adopted by the federal government, which wanted to disband tribes and sell reservation land, according to the National Archives.

In 1983 Grand Ronde was once again recognized by the U.S. Government, and reclaimed about 11,000 acres of reservation land in Yamhill County. 

Thompson said the latest agreement between the tribe and the state is essential for preserving the traditions and culture that bind members of Grand Ronde to one another and their history.

“This will help tribal members provide subsistence foods for their families, even if they live away from the reservation. They still have the ability to hunt and fish on a tribal tag. And that means a lot,” she said.

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