In a First, Federal Government Acknowledges Harms of Dams on Native American Communities

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The federal government has released a report that for the first time acknowledges the harms that dams in the Pacific Northwest have “inflicted and continue to inflict” on Native American tribes, it said.

The report, released on Tuesday by the Interior Department, details the “historic, ongoing, and cumulative damage and injustices that the federal dams on the Columbia River have caused and continue to cause to Tribal Nations,” the Biden administration said in a statement. It is also starting a task force to pursue restoring wild salmon and other native fish to the river’s basin, and to expand tribally sponsored clean energy production, it said.

Large hydroelectric dams were built throughout the basin at the beginning of the 20th century, and, according to the report, flooded thousands of acres, sacred sites and ancestral burial grounds. They also transformed the ecosystem, including by blocking fish from migrating. As a result, many tribal communities have been unable to fish, changing traditional diets and cultural practices.

“Our older commitments to the land itself, and to the inhabitants that were here before us, doesn’t happen,” Shannon F. Wheeler, chairman for the Nez Perce Tribe, one of those considered by the report, said by phone on Tuesday. In the past, a large part of the tribe’s diet was salmon, he added, but that has drastically declined.

Mr. Wheeler described the report and task force as a step toward reaffirming the partnership between the tribe and the federal government, which in December committed to restoring salmon populations; expanding tribally sponsored clean energy production; and providing stability for communities that depend on the river for agriculture, energy, recreation and transportation. Together with leaders of four Columbia River Basin tribes and the governors of Oregon and Washington, the Biden administration formally announced the $1 billion plan in February.

The report acknowledged that federal dams and reservoirs in the Columbia River Basin — which covers nearly 260,000 miles across seven states — had affected all local tribes but focused on the repercussions of 11 dams for tribes it described as the “most immediately affected.”

The Yakama Nation, which was listed as one of those tribes, said in a news release that the report was “an important cabinet-level acknowledgment of the many decades of undelivered promises.”

Several tribes could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday evening.

Brenda Mallory, the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the task force would work to develop affordable, reliable and clean energy for the region, while addressing the “grave harms” inflicted by the federal government on the local Native American communities.

“President Biden recognizes that to confront injustice, we must be honest about history — even when doing so is difficult,” she said, describing the report as a step toward overcoming the past.



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