Between 1853 and 1855 the federal government negotiated treaties with the Tribes who came to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. These tribes were promised what amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in money, services, security and a permanent reservation forever. I have already established in other essays that the tribes were not correctly paid annually, but that things like food and services were not consistently provided due to transportation problems from the east coast and federal malfeasance. Many Tribal members died in the first few years, as a result of starvation, malnutrition and illnesses from having been exposed to radically different environments. This situation continued until at least 1863.
As well the tribal reservation was decreased in 1891 due to the Dawes Act. The federal government gave allotments to the tribal members from the reservation and in the process made the remaining acreage, roughly half the reservation, subject to public sale as surplus lands. By 1907 the lands were sold, mainly to timber companies.
By 1950 the tribe only had 597 acres remaining of the original 60,000 acre reservation (the early accounts of reservation acreage varies from 59,000 to 69,000 in numerous federal reports). After termination was completed in 1956 (this is the year the final termination bill was passed, and when people lost services and status) the tribe had only a 2.5 acre parcel, the cemetery, or part of it remaining (some 1970’s accounts suggest 7.5 acres, but the original acreage remaining was 2.5, with 5 acres bought soon after the tribe began restoration proceedings). This became the land the tribe used for restoration. In short, the tribe was not allowed to have a permanent reservation, as agreed in the seven ratified treaties, and for 29 years was terminated (1954-1983), and once restored (1983) it took another five years (1988) for a small prtion of the land to be returned (9811 acres). The tribe today still only has roughly 15 percent of the original acreage of the reservation.
In the process of paying the tribes for all the “ceded” lands listed in the treaties, which was all of the lands between the Coast Range peak and the Cascade Mountain peaks, and from the California border to the Columbia River. the tribes were apparently paid for a this land, some 19 million acres at roughly .01 cents an acre (collectively). The lands purchased were said to be the complete acreage of all the tribes, and in many history books the matter appears to have been closed. The Tribes were paid, and the US owned all the land, period.
However, there are a few parcels of original tribal homelands which appear to have never been paid for by the United States. There are a few million acres on the Washington side of the Columbia that were owned by the Cascades (Watlala) and the Wapato Island (Multnomah) which appear to have been ignored. Joel Palmer knew the tribes owned these lands and stated so in a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, indeed the same letter which accompanied the Willamette Valley Treaty (Jan. 1855). The letter stated the following of the Wal-lal-la (Cascade tribe) landclaims,
“The second proviso of the same article is designed to secure an equitable proportion of the treaty to the bands to which it refers. The permanent places of residence of the Wal-lal-la band are on the Southern banks of the Columbia River between the Willamette and Sandy, though they claim a considerable tract north of the Columbia, commencing a few miles above Fort Vancouver and extending to the Cascade Falls, the latter being their residence in the fishing season. This band is the largest embraced in the treaty, whilest their country south of the Columbia with a few exceptions is one half less than that of each of the other confederated bands. It was their desire to be embraced in this treaty, yet to permit this without securing to the general funds the purchase of their lands north of the Columbia, would be inequitable in regard to bands associated with them.”
Of the Wapato Island peoples landclaims;
“I have learned that the Indians on Souvies Island claim a tract north of the River. The country purchased of these bands embraces a territory of not less than eleven thousand eight hundred and eighty square miles in extent, or over seven and a half million acres. The purchase price is two hundred thousand dollars and the employment of a Smith, Teacher, Physician and Superintendent of farming opperation [sic] for five years, involving an expenditure of not more than twenty five thousand dollars more, making a cost per acre of less than three cents.”
The number of acres mentioned here is remarkable. There were known villages of these peoples on both sides of the river and territorial and resources claims that extended five to ten miles up each of the tributary rivers. There is no indication that there was ever an attempt to pay either of the above tribes for their lands north of the Columbia. In fact, the Cowlitz might have gotten paid for part of these lands in their Indian Claims suit. This is an issue which has never been visited by the tribe. There was never an attempt to get paid for this land on behalf of these peoples.
Perhaps there should be an attempt. I suggest that the time is past for the Tribe to be timid and play within the rules, but its time to be bold and claim this land officially and request immediate payment from the federal government. I suggest that the Tribe lobby to gain funds in payment for the lack of diligence by the federal government, that they failed to pay the Tribes for this land in a timely manner, and they should pay for the occupational rental or lease of the land for some 150 years. There is clearly a case here, and it may be hard fought but in time the tribe would win, because we have history and the law on our side. Besides this letter by Palmer, there are other letters by him which state the same issue, and there are numerous ethnographic surveys of the land by scholars such as George Gibbs which show that the tribes have a significant claim on the north side of the Columbia. This is a viable case on the part of the tribe, the descendant, and inheritor, of the rights and landclaims of those antecedent tribes. The case could be worth 100’s of millions of dollars depending on the acreage involved.
I suggest the tribe pursue this case with all haste, and then when this case is done, tackle a similar issue for southern Oregon, as it is impossible to validly suggest that the athapaskans, Takelmans and Shastans, ie: Rogue River tribes who came to Grand Ronde- had a perfectly straight territorial border which happens to match the present Oregon-California State Line.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.