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Columbia River tribes in U.S., Canada seek representation for treaty

Leaders of the Colville Confederated Tribes and three indigenous nations in Canada have expressed their outrage at being excluded by the U.S. and Canadian governments from the re-negotiation of the U.S-Canada Columbia River Treaty (CRT).

When the CRT was negotiated and ratified in 1964, they were shut out of decisions affecting their rights.

Michael Marchand, chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes, has worked with 14 other Columbia River Basin Tribes to have a seat for tribal nations at the negotiation table.

On May 22, the State Department said U.S. entities joining it in negotiations to modernize the treaty are the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division, the Department of the Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The Colville Tribes and 14 other Columbia River Basin tribes have participated in the multi-year treaty review process, seeking a seat for indigenous people in negotiations.

“We are the people with the longest and deepest connections to the Columbia River, the people who have respected and depended upon the river and its salmon and other natural and cultural resources for thousands of years,” Chairman Marchand said.

The current treaty has also harmed the indigenous people of the Upper Columbia River Basin in Canada—the Ktunaxa Nation, Secwepemc Nation and Syilx Okanagan Nation.

The CRT is the largest international water storage agreement between Canada and the United States, holding back 15.5 million acre-feet of water for flood control and power generation with an annual value of $3 billion.

The treaty has desecrated sacred, village and burial sites, cut fish populations and harvest areas, and turned a vibrant river into industrial water storage reservoirs, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, Kukpi7 Wayne Christian of the Shuswap National Tribal Council and Jesse Nicholas of the Ktunaxa Nation Council.

“The tribes need and deserve meaningful input into the treaty re-negotiation,” said Chairman Marchand.  “Negotiations affect all Columbia River Tribes, so we should have representation.”

For millennia, the Columbia River has been and remains a crucial component in the economies, subsistence and cultures of Columbia River Tribes, he said.

The 1.5 million-acre Colville Reservation includes the Columbia River from its confluence with the Okanogan River to near Kettle Falls, plus two of the U.S.’s largest hydroelectric dams, Grand Coulee Dam and Chief Joseph Dam.

The construction of those and other dams blocked all passage of salmon to the upper Columbia River Basin. Once there were “enormous runs of the culturally and nutritionally vital fish,” he said.  Kettle Falls was an economic hub for tribal trade routes from all over what is now the U.S.

Certain significant provisions of the treaty will expire in 2024 if not re-negotiated.

 Today, more than 9,520 descendants of 12 aboriginal tribes are enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of the Colville—the Colville, the Nespelem, the San Poil, the Arrow Lakes, the Palus, the Wenatchi (Wenatchee), the Chelan, the Entiat, the Methow, the southern Okanogan, the Moses Columbia and the Nez Perce of Chief Joseph’s Bands.

According to Canada’s Ten Reconciliation Principles statement in July 2017, the government committed to “achieving reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples through a renewed, nation-to-nation, government-to-government, and Inuit-Crown relationship, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership as the foundation of transformative change.”

Speaking Feb. 14 to the House of Commons on implementing the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reinforced the commitment.

Since 2011, the three nations have participated in the CRT renewal process and intend to hold the Trudeau government to its commitment to respect the self-determination and aspirations of the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc and Syilx Okanagan Nations. 

The Colville and three Canadian Nations will explore options.

For information, email John Osborn at or the Rev. Tom Soeldner at of the Columbia River Roundtable.

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