Why should low-carbon projects be permitted to destroy legendary Native American sacred sites? Yakama elders witnessed the construction of The Dalles Dam that flooded and silenced Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. Since time immemorial, Celilo Falls was one of history’s great marketplaces. Multiple tribes had permanent villages near the falls. Thousands of people gathered annually to trade, feast, and participate in games and religious ceremonies over millennia. During spring, this natural monument surged up to 10 times the amount of water that passes over Niagara Falls today.
What must Indigenous people continue to sacrifice for energy development? The Seattle Times editorial board recently announced support for the Goldendale pumped-storage hydroelectric project to benefit the state’s clean-energy portfolio [“Goldendale energy project can help meet state’s clean-energy needs,” Sept. 2, Opinion]. The board constructed an alternate reality where tribal nations could find common ground with the developer and resolve objections to project construction. The board wrote, “A compromise that would allow the project to go forward while respecting tribal concerns would be a benefit for all.” The board ignores the realities of Native American history and the history of this project, which the Confederated Tribes and Bands of Yakama Nation (Yakama Nation) have objected to from the initial development proposal at this site.
The project site is situated on Pushpum — a sacred site to the Yakama Nation, a place where there is an abundance of traditional foods and medicines. The developer’s footprint proposes excavation and trenching over identified Indigenous Traditional Cultural Properties, historic and archaeological resources and access to exercise ceremonial practices and treaty-gathering rights.
Notably, the project site covers the ancestral village site of the Willa-witz-pum Band and the Yakama fishing site called As’num, where Yakama tribal fishermen continue to practice their treaty-fishing rights.
Yakama Nation opposes the development. The developer proposes two, approximately 60-acre reservoirs and associated energy infrastructure within the Columbia Hills near the John Day Dam and an existing wind turbine complex. The majority of the nearly 700 acre site is undeveloped; the lower reservoir would be located on a portion of the former Columbia Gorge Aluminum smelter site. The tribe’s treaty-reserved right to exercise gathering, fishing, ceremony and passing of traditions in the area of the proposed project has existed since time immemorial. The tribe studied mitigation; it is impossible at this site.
Columbia Riverkeeper, and more than a dozen other nonprofits, stand in solidarity with Yakama Nation and oppose the development: The climate crisis does not absolve our moral and ethical responsibilities. Both tribal nations and environmental organizations have worked tirelessly to stop fossil fuel developments and secure monumental climate legislation in the Pacific Northwest. But we refuse to support a sacrifice zone to destroy Native American cultural and sacred sites in the name of combating climate change.
Environmental justice is on the line with the pumped-storage development. Seventeen tribal leaders sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, urging him to reject development permits. The leaders explained, “Our ancestors signed Treaties with the United States, often under threat of violence and death, in exchange for our ancestral lands and sacred places. Through these treaties, we retain the rights to practice and live in our traditional ways in these places. Yet, the promises made by the government have been broken time and time again.”
Earlier this year, the Washington State Office of Equity, located within the governor’s office, released the state’s inaugural five-year Washington State Pro-Equity Anti-Racism Plan & Playbook. Gov. Inslee stated, “We will no longer replicate and reinforce systems, processes and behaviors that lead to inequities and disparities among various communities.” Now is the time to apply the playbook to climate change and energy siting.
There is no room for compromise. The choice is stark: Continue to advance our nation’s and state’s history of sacrificing Indigenous resources through broken promises, or work with tribes committed to tackling the climate crisis while, at the same time, protecting the last remaining sacred sites.
Jeremy Takala is known as Pax’una’shut in the Yakama Nation. He is of the Kahmiltpah Band (Rock Creek) and grew up in Goldendale. He serves as a tribal councilman for Yakama Nation.
Lauren Goldberg is the executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that unites people to protect and restore the Columbia River and all life connected to it.