|Oregon Native American Interests at Hanford
After nearly a half century of making plutonium for nuclear weapons at Hanford, the federal government is working to clean up the 560 square mile site and restore it, as much as possible, to its natural state. Making plutonium creates dangerous radioactive and chemical wastes that can harm people and the environment.
Parts of the Hanford site are so badly contaminated with radioactive waste that full environmental restoration is impossible. Contamination has reached groundwater and the nearby Columbia River.
Hanford is owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE). The Department estimates that cleanup will take at least decades and cost tens of billion of dollars.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
Long ago, before there was a Hanford or a United States or nuclear weapons, the vast expanse of what we now call the Columbia River Plateau was living space for about 8,000 people of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes.
Their homeland was 10,000 square miles of mountains and deep forests, desert and green valleys, two mighty rivers and scores of smaller streams. It was bounded on the east and north by the Snake River, on the west by the Yakama Nation, and on the south by lands shared with other tribes along the John Day River.
The Columbia River flows through what was then a cultural and economic center for the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla tribal communities.
The people spoke Shahaptian dialects. They were generally peaceful. The land and its many spirits was their world, their culture and their religion. The tribes did not "own" the land. They were part of it and it was part of them.
The land provided for all their needs: hunting and fishing, food gathering and endless acres of grass on which to graze as many as 20,000 horses. They were canny horsemen and horsetraders.
They traded with other tribes, from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains, and later with fur trappers and settlers.
After the 1800s, steady migrations of Euro-Americans would change many things, but nothing would change native people's reverence for and their unique relationship with the land.
Treaty of 1855
In 1855, the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes ceded 6.4 million acres to the United States. That included the eastern half of what now is the Hanford Site. By treaty, the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla Indians reserved rights to use reservation lands for economic and subsistence including the right to fish at all usual and accustomed fishing stations and the right to hunt, graze cattle and gather traditional foods and medicines on unclaimed (i.e., government-owned) lands. The Hanford Site is regarded in law as unclaimed land. The Tribes' off-reservation treaty fishing rights include access to a long stretch of the Columbia River downstream to Bonneville Dam.
The 1855 Treaty allowed the three tribes to set aside a quarter million-acre reservation for a homeland. The government signed separate treaties with the Yakamas and the Nez Perce.
Today, there are fewer than 1,500 native Americans enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Most live on the reservation. Tribal political leadership is exercised by the nine-member Board of Trustees and by elected officers of the General Council.
The area around Hanford has always held important cultural and religious, as well as economic, values for the three tribes. The "Hanford Reach" of the Columbia is the last free-flowing stretch in the river. It is a crucial spawning habitat for chinook salmon.
Key phrases in the Treaty of 1855 and later court decisions charge the federal government with recognizing tribal sovereignty.
Courts also hold that the government must manage treaty resource lands and waters so as to provide the resources preserved in the treaty. Failure to effectively clean up Hanford could be regarded as a treaty violation.
Tribal Interests in Hanford Cleanup
The tribes have vital interests in any Hanford activity that risks any right or resource assured by the 1855 Treaty. That includes threats to the fishery from radioactive and chemical contamination in the Columbia River. It also includes tribal members' access to cultural and religious sites like Locke and Savage Islands in the Columbia, Wahluke Slope and Rattlesnake Mountain south of Richland.
In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. It set high-level radioactive waste management and disposal as a matter of high national priority. When Hanford was a candidate site for a permanent high-level waste disposal facility, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (as well as the Yakamas and Nez Perce) found standing as "affected Indian tribes." The Act provided funds to support the tribes' involvement in disposal site issues.
Five years later, amendments to the Act stopped tribal funding. Hanford was dropped from consideration as a repository site in 1987. Funding is now restored for tribal oversight of the Hanford cleanup due to the potential impact of cleanup activities on the off-reservation treaty rights of tribal members. Tribal representatives are now involved in Hanford cleanup issues and decisions.
In 1992, the tribes submitted testimony and technical arguments favoring designation ofthe Hanford Reach of the Columbia as a national wildlife refuge and a wild and scenic river. Hanford cleanup likely will dominate Pacific Northwest environmental agendas for years to come. Native Americans will provide important leadership in resolving cleanup policy issues like protecting the Columbia River environment. Oregon's Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation figure to be in the vanguard of that leadership.