Editors note: The Columbia River has been turned into a slave of civilization, forced to provide hydroelectricity, barge transport, and irrigation water to cities and big agribusiness. It is shackled in concrete and dying from dams, from overfishing, from toxins, from nuclear waste, from acoustic barrages and armored shorelines and logging and endless atrocities.
We at Deep Green Resistance do not believe that the federal government will accede to demands such as these. Furthermore, there are thousands of dams currently under construction or proposed worldwide. There are millions of dams in the “United States.” The salmon, the Orca whales—they have no time to waste. Everything is heading in the wrong direction. Therefore, we call for a militant resistance movement around the world to complement aboveground resistance movements and to dismantle industrial infrastructure.
Featured image: The Columbia River is constrained by Bonneville Dam, and bracketed by clearcuts, highways, and utility corridors. Public domain.
Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation
On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 14, 2019, the Yakama Nation and Lummi Nation hosted a press conference urging the removal of the lower Columbia River dams as part of a broader call for federal repudiation of the offensive doctrine of Christian discovery, which the United States uses to justify federal actions that impair the rights of Native Nations. The press conference took place this morning at Celilo Park near Celilo Village, Oregon.
“The false religious doctrine of Christian discovery was used by the United States to perpetuate crimes of genocide and forced displacement against Native Peoples. The Columbia River dams were built on this false legal foundation, and decimated the Yakama Nation’s fisheries, traditional foods, and cultural sites,” said Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman JoDe Goudy. “On behalf of the Yakama Nation and those things that cannot speak for themselves, I call on the United States to reject the doctrine of Christian discovery and immediately remove the Bonneville Dam, Dalles Dam, and John Day Dam.”
The doctrine of Christian discovery is the fiction that when Christian European monarchs obtained what was for them new knowledge of the Western Hemisphere, those monarchs had a religious right of domination over all non-Christian lands. This doctrine was propagated by the Roman Catholic Church through a series of papal bulls in the 15th century, including a papal bull authorizing Portugal to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans” and to place them into perpetual slavery and take their property. The Roman Catholic Church then implemented a framework where the right to subjugate the Americas was split between Spain and Portugal, although they were later joined by other European states. The doctrine was therefore one of domination and dehumanization of Native Peoples, and was used to perpetuate the most widespread genocide in human history.
In 1823, the United States Supreme Court used the doctrine of Christian discovery as the legal basis for the United States’ exercise of authority over Native lands and Peoples. See Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823). The Court found that the United States holds clear title to all Native lands subject only to the Native Nation’s right of occupancy, which the United States can terminate through purchase or conquest. In relying on the doctrine of Christian discovery, the Court described it as “the principle that discovery gave title to the government . . . against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.” Id. at 573. The Court used this religious doctrine of domination and dehumanization to unilaterally deprive Native Nations of their sovereign rights, racially juxtaposing the rights of “Christian peoples” against those “heathens” and “fierce savages.” Id. at 577, 590.
In the years that followed, this false religious doctrine became the bedrock for what are now considered to be foundational principles of federal Indian law. In United States v. Kagama, 188 U.S. 375 (1886), and Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, 187 U.S. 553 (1903), the Court announced Congress’ extra-constitutional plenary power over all Indian affairs—the plenary power doctrine — which it justified by pointing to Native Nations’ loss of sovereign, diplomatic, economic, and property rights upon first ‘discovery’ by Europeans. In The Cherokee Tobacco, 78 U.S. 616 (1870), the Court applied the doctrine and held that Congress can unilaterally abrogate Treaty rights with subsequent legislation unless there is an express exemption provided in the Treaty—the last-in- time doctrine. In Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191 (1978), the Court deprived Native Nations of criminal jurisdiction over non-members based on the statement in M’Intosh that Native Nations’ rights “to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished” by European ‘discovery’ — the diminished tribal sovereignty doctrine. These legal doctrines have been weaponized against Native Nations ever since, including by Congress in authorizing construction of the Bonneville Dam, Dalles Dam, and John Day Dam without the Yakama Nation’s free, prior, and informed consent.
The history of the lower Columbia River dams can be traced back to 1792, when United States Merchant Robert Gray sailed up our N’chi’Wana (Columbia River) and claimed the territory for the United States. Mr. Gray entered our lands and performed a religious doctrine of discovery ceremony by raising an American flag and burying coins beneath the soil, thereby proclaiming dominion over our lands and our families without our knowledge or consent. Following the War of 1812, the United States and England falsely claimed joint authority over what became known as the Oregon Territory until 1846, when England relinquished its claim south of the 49th parallel. Having eliminated British opposition, Congress passed the Oregon Territorial Act of 1848 and the Washington Territorial Act of 1853. Both Territorial Acts reserve the United States’ claim to the sole right to treat with Native Nations, thereby maintaining the federal government’s doctrine of Christian discovery-based claims.
At the Walla Walla Treaty Council in May and June of 1855, the Yakama Nation’s ancestors met with United States representatives to negotiate the Treaty with the Yakamas of June 9, 1855. Article III, paragraph 2 of the Treaty reserves the Yakama Nation’s “right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places . . .” including many places throughout the Columbia River basin. At no point during these negotiations did the United States express a claimed right of dominion over the Yakama Nation’s traditional lands that would allow the United States to unilaterally ignore the Treaty. Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens did not explain that the United States would dam the rivers and violate the Yakama Nation’s Treaty-reserved fishing rights without the Yakama Nation’s free, prior, and informed consent.
What followed was a 100-year conquest of the Columbia River by the United States. First, the United States Supreme Court paved the way by affirming federal regulatory authority over navigable waterways like the Columbia River in Gilman v. Philadelphia, 70 U.S. 713 (1866), and Congress’ extra-constitutional plenary authority over Indian affairs in United States v. Kagama, 188 U.S. 375 (1886). Congress then exercised this supposed authority by passing a series of legislative acts without the Yakama Nation’s consent, including Rivers and Harbors Acts, Right of Way Acts, the General Dams Act, the Federal Water Power Act, and the Bonneville Project Act, all of which facilitated construction of the lower Columbia River dams without regard for the Yakama Nation’s Treaty-reserved rights.
During the Depression, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act authorizing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to approve public works projects like the Bonneville Dam. Construction started in 1933, but President Roosevelt’s approval of the project was quickly deemed unconstitutional in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935). The authorization was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority from Congress to the President. It should have been deemed unconstitutional under the United States Constitution’s Supremacy Clause — which says the Treaty of 1855 is the “supreme law of the land” — because it was inconsistent with the rights reserved to the Yakama Nation by Treaty. Any argument to the contrary is an argument that Congress has plenary power over Indian affairs rooted in the false religious doctrine of Christian discovery.
Congress quickly re-approved the Bonneville Dam’s construction, which was completed in 1938. The Dalles Dam was built from 1952 to 1957, and the John Day Dam was built from 1968 to 1972. The Yakama Nation, as co-equal sovereign and signatory to the Treaty of 1855, never approved the construction of these dams. They inundated the villages, burial grounds, fishing places, and ceremonial sites that we used since time immemorial. Celilo Falls was the trading hub for Native Peoples throughout the northwest. The United States detonated it with explosives and drowned it with the Dalles Dam. After the Dalles Dam’s construction had already started, the United States negotiated an insignificant settlement with the Yakama Nation for the damage caused by the Dam. This was domination and coercion, not consent.
Today, the lower Columbia River dams stand as physical monuments to the domination and dehumanization that the United States continues to impose on Native Nations under the false religious doctrine of Christian discovery. “Columbus Day is a federal holiday celebrating the Christian-European invasion of our lands under the colonial doctrine of Christian discovery. Today, the Yakama Nation rejects that narrative by celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day and calling on the United States to remove the lower Columbia River dams that were built without our consent using the same false religious doctrine,” said Chairman Goudy.