Native American tribes in the Northwest once centered entire societies around the Columbia River, living on its shores and fishing salmon from its waters. Beginning in the 1930s, however, the United States built a series of hydroelectric dams on the river, flooding tribal villages and destroying traditional tribal access to the river for fishing. Despite promises, these tribes were never compensated properly for their losses. Today, many tribal members wishing to fish salmon from the river do so from small plots of land set aside by the government. Some also live at these sites in makeshift housing, subject to overcrowded and unsafe conditions with limited water and electricity. There are few other options, however, as the government built only fifteen permanent houses for tribal use in the Columbia River Gorge to replace the many lost.
In 2016, decades after the construction of the first dam, Congress and the Obama Administration made significant progress toward compensating local peoples for these losses. The United States Army Corps of Engineers (the Army Corps) began developing plans to construct a new Indian village in the region, and Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN Act), which authorized additional financial assistance for long-displaced tribal members.
This In Brief describes and analyzes the policy actions which led to this progress. Part I provides an overview of how U.S. energy, environmental, and tribal laws and policies created the current situation. It also summarizes the strategy that a coalition of policy makers employed in 2016 to address the problem. Part II identifies next steps to build on progress and argues that the strategies used to address the Columbia River tribal housing crisis provide a blueprint for policy makers seeking to address longstanding regional tribal justice issues through federal laws.