Why can’t the public access the West’s biggest waterfall?

Willamette Falls used to be a public place of laughter and sharing. It could be again, if painful politics don’t eclipse revitalization efforts.

Every second, 32,000 cubic feet of water rushes over a horseshoe-shaped basalt ledge, churning up a dome of mist and white noise that enfolds the entire 1,500-foot-long, four-story-high shelf. Willamette Falls, the West’s biggest waterfall, is surpassed in the U.S. only by Niagara. It would astound anyone who saw it — if they could see it. But for a century now, industrial structures have blocked access to this natural wonder.

These structures have included lumber, grist, woolen and paper mills, the nation’s largest producer of cardboard box material, and a hydroelectric dam that diminished the waterfall to power the nation’s first successful long-distance transmission of electricity. Throughout the 20th century, the falls, nestled in the Portland area between Oregon City and West Linn, seemed destined to serve industry and little else. Then the Blue Heron Paper Mill went bankrupt after a New York private equity firm purchased it, and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde seized the opportunity to buy the property in 2019.

 

The tribal nation was already involved in a plan to restore the area and reclaim the falls, having partnered with the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, a nonprofit organized to revitalize the falls, and the Willamette Falls Trust, which began as the Legacy Project’s fundraising arm before expanding operations. The Legacy Project, which included Clackamas County, Oregon City, the state of Oregon and the tri-county authority Oregon Metro, set out to redesign the old paper mill with Grand Ronde for public access. After Grand Ronde finalized its $15.25 million purchase of the 23-acre site, however, the project took a turn. 

In spring 2020, the trust invited other tribes with ties to the falls to join the board: the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians joined. Grand Ronde was not pleased; Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy publicly criticized the tribes’ inclusion, saying the trust’s board sought to “undermine us by asking other tribes to take seats.”

Grand Ronde presented itself as the only tribe with a legitimate connection to the falls. “We’re the sovereign nation that has the treaty for the entire metropolitan area,” Kennedy told the Portland Tribune. “No other tribe can say that.”

Aerial view of Willamette Falls, which currently has no public access point on the ground.

 

Kennedy also wrote a formal complaint to the trust’s board of directors about microaggressions: During meetings, non-Native contractors allegedly presented Indigenous histories, inaccurately and without permission, and used colonial terms like “discovery.” Then, in February 2021, Grand Ronde refused to sign a standard confidentiality agreement with the trust to protect donor information, as well as an IRS-required conflict of interest agreement, in what Kennedy called “an ultimatum.” In response, the trust barred Grand Ronde from a Zoom meeting. In a letter to the board, Kennedy called these “insulting and harmful practices.”

“Those claims about cultural incompetence or microaggressions because of these documents continue to confuse us,” said Gerard Rodriguez (Yaqui and Nahua), the trust’s associate director and director of tribal affairs. “No other tribal nation had any issue with this.” Still, the trust apologized.

In April 2021, Grand Ronde withdrew from the trust, and this March it withdrew from the legacy project altogether, taking its waterfall-front real estate with it. This left the project without a site, and Grand Ronde on its own to find funding for development. Grand Ronde blamed the microaggressions, and bureaucratic gridlock caused by too many parties being involved. But Grand Ronde’s isn’t the only story.

DAVIS “YELLOWASH” WASHINES, who represents the Yakama Nation on the board of the Willamette Falls Trust, has longtime friends on Grand Ronde’s tribal council, as well as family connections to the Klikitat people, who historically enrolled with both Yakama and Grand Ronde. “These are basically our relatives,” Washines said.

But he, along with the board’s other tribal representatives, took issue with Grand Ronde’s exclusive claim to the falls. While Washines agrees that most people ejected from the area ended up on the Grand Ronde Reservation, he says the contemporary tribes overlap, and the Yakama people’s spiritual and cultural relationship with Willamette Falls dates back to time immemorial.

Prior to industrial degradation, this natural wonder was a marketplace. Salmon and lamprey gathered at the falls, so the people did too, traveling from across the Northwest to fish, trade, laugh and see old friends. After the federal government divided area tribes, it sent them to reservations, reorganized as confederations. Today these confederations, including the Yakama Nation, Warm Springs and Umatilla, retain treaty-guaranteed access to the falls as a “usual and accustomed” fishing site. It’s one of the last places in the U.S. to harvest Pacific lamprey.

“We’re not ‘visitors’ — those things have no place in our discussion,” Washines said. “If other people want to say that they are the only people there, then that’s their business. But I rely on facts myself. And I rely on the oral tradition of our people.”

“Their argument that they are the only Indians in the universe who matter at Willamette Falls is absolutely ridiculous,” said Robert Kentta, treasurer of the Siletz Tribe and current board chair of Willamette Falls Trust.

He called Grand Ronde’s behavior bullying, its withdrawal from the trust a “public flip.” Kentta  fears that, more than just shutting other tribes out of the development project, Grand Ronde might erase other tribal histories from public presentations, or even shut down plans for public access to the falls.

“We’re not ‘visitors’ — those things have no place in our discussion.” 

Willamette Falls in Portland, Oregon, is surrounded by industrial buildings like the former Blue Heron Paper Mill, seen on the right, just past the falls. Now, tribes are working to restore the falls and to open up public access.

Grand Ronde bought the mill with an easement running through it, which Oregon Metro obtained from a previous owner. That easement requires any future developments to include a public riverwalk. Grand Ronde told HCN that public access remains a central element of the tribe’s development plans. But Kentta’s not convinced. “I am concerned that with Metro’s posture, that (Grand Ronde) will bully their way into either getting Metro to hand over that easement to them or sell it to them.”

Metro is in a precarious position. It is a member of the legacy project, it has a non-voting member on the board of the trust, and it has to balance these interests against the wishes of Grand Ronde, which owns the property with the easement. When asked who could enforce the easement, or whether it was possible for Grand Ronde to take control of it, a Metro representative emailed HCN: “We continue to work with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde regarding the role that the easement plays in their redevelopment on the property. Public access at Willamette Falls is important to everyone, and we are looking forward to further conversations about how to achieve that shared goal.”

 “I am concerned that with Metro’s posture, that (Grand Ronde) will bully their way into either getting Metro to hand over that easement to them or sell it to them.”

Kentta said the Willamette Falls situation is yet another attempt by Grand Ronde to disrupt other tribes’ development plans. “We’ve been through many of these kinds of contests with the Grand Ronde Tribe, and they play a very nontraditional, non-Native type of political game.” Washines called this behavior “aggressive.”

An op-ed in the Umatilla tribal newsletter, written by the tribe’s board of trustees, said “the restored Grand Ronde Tribe seems to have forgotten how Indians resolve differences”; Umatilla “supported the restoration of the Grand Ronde Tribe in the 1980s, but their quest for territorial expansion through exclusionary practices has made working together difficult.” But Grand Ronde insists it has a unique role, since the falls are part of tribal homelands ceded under the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855.

“Today, as owners and hosts of the site, our goal is to renew access for the public. As we make progress towards that goal, we welcome input from all that have an interest in our Willamette Falls project,” said Sara Thompson, the Grand Ronde Tribe’s communications director, in an email to HCN. “We are disheartened to hear the comments from some. We view these comments as distracting from the important work at hand. Our focus is on renewing, restoring, and revitalizing Willamette Falls so we can all experience this special place.”

IT’S IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER that these fractures stem from painful histories. None of these confederations, or the boundaries between them, existed before colonization. In fact, in 1855 there was only one western Oregon reservation: Siletz, which is where the tribes that became part of Grand Ronde were originally scheduled to be sent. But President James Buchanan abruptly decided to establish the Grand Ronde Reservation as a second western Oregon reservation instead of an extension of Siletz. On a foreigner’s whim, the tribes became separate peoples.

“Over the years, there’s been a lot of trauma and historical legal wrongs done to the tribes just falling out of that history,” said Kentta. Washines told HCN almost exactly the same thing.

“They’re a sovereign, just like we are, and they have their reasons, at the tribal council level, to make decisions,” Washines said. “So it’s not for me to question.”

Grand Ronde has begun demolition of the old paper mill. And whatever happens to the property, all the tribes can still reach the falls by boat for summer lamprey harvests. The trust is seeking new opportunities for public access, possibly on the other side of the river, where Portland General Electric operates a hydroelectric station alongside another, still-active paper mill. Washines says he looks forward to the day when he can go to Grand Ronde as a friend and “untangle these Christmas lights together.” At his suggestion, the board’s tribal leadership committee permanently reserved a seat on Willamette Falls Trust for Grand Ronde, should the tribe ever wish to return. 

“Yakama Nation will never say, ‘You don’t belong here.’”   

B. Toastie (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Note: A previous version of this story mistakenly said Grand Ronde was a member of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project. They were a member of the Willamette Falls Trust.