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Chief Joseph McCorkle Breaks Ground,

Pelton Dam

This Les Orderman photograph of Wasco Chief Joseph McCorkle symbolically breaking ground for the Pelton Dam was originally published in the Oregon Journal, on May 2, 1956.

From 1949 through 1956, the Pelton Dam project, planned by Portland General Electric (PGE). Much attention was given to the competing needs of fish and electric-power consumers, but much less attention was paid to the Indians of the Warm Springs Reservation, whose leadership was eagerly awaiting the approval of the project. 

Because the Pelton Dam and resulting reservoir were sited along the eastern boundary of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, tribal leaders expected financial compensation amounting to approximately $85,000 per year from PGE in return for the tribes’ permission to move forward with the project.  Early state opposition to the project not only threatened the loss of potential income for roughly 1,200 enrolled members of the confederated tribes, but was also viewed as an affront to the tribes’ treaty rights of 1855.  

According to the treaty, the “middle tribes of Oregon” had reserved “the exclusive right of taking fish in the streams running through and bordering said reservation.” In a hearing before the Federal Power Commission (FPC) in June 1951, tribal attorney T. Leland Brown, interpreted the treaty language to mean that the Warm Springs tribes “have exclusive rights to all the fish in the Deschutes and Metolius rivers where they border the reservation. We deny that the fish commission has any rights on those streams without our approval.”

The tribe began receiving annual payments from PGE in 1958, and in 1964, with the completion of the Round Butte Dam, PGE increased their compensation to $220,000 per year.  Additionally, the tribes secured the sole right to sell fishing permits to visitors of the two reservoirs.  In 1982, the Warm Springs tribes constructed a 19-megawatt powerhouse at the Pelton project’s reregulating dam to generate more revenue, and in 2002 they assumed one-third ownership of the project.

History of The

Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs

The Wascoes

The Wasco bands on the Columbia River were the eastern-most group of Chinookan-speaking Indians. Although they were principally fishermen, their frequent contact with other Indians throughout the region provided for abundant trade. Roots and beads were available from other Chinookan bands such as the Clackamas. Game, clothing, and horses came from trade with Sahaptin bands such as the neighboring Warm Springs and the more distant Nez Perce. In exchange for these goods, the Wasco traded root bread, salmon meal, and bear grass.

The Warm Springs

The Warm Springs bands who lived along the Columbia’s tributaries spoke Sahaptin. Unlike the Wascoes, the Warm Springs bands moved between winter and summer villages and depended more on game, roots, and berries. However, salmon was also an important staple for the Warm Springs bands, and, like the Wascoes, they built elaborate scaffolding over waterfalls which allowed them to harvest fish with long-handled dip nets. Contact between the Warm Springs bands and the Wascoes was frequent, and, although they spoke different languages and observed different customs, they could converse and traded heavily.

The Paiutes

The Paiutes lived in southeastern Oregon and spoke a Shoshonean dialect. The lifestyle of the Paiutes was considerably different from that of the Wasco and Warm Springs bands. Their high-plains existence required that they migrate further and more frequently for the game, and fish was not an important part of their diet. The Paiute language was foreign to the Wasco and Warm Springs bands, and commerce among them was infrequent. In early times, contact between them often resulted in skirmishes. Although Paiute territories historically included a large area from southeastern Oregon into Nevada, Idaho, and western Utah, the Paiute bands which eventually settled at Warm Springs lived in the area of Lake, Harney, and Malheur counties in Oregon.

The Arrival of Settlers

During the 1800s, the old way of life for the Indian bands in Oregon was upset by the new waves of immigrants from the east. In 1843, 1,000 immigrants passed through The Dalles. In 1847 there were 4,000. By 1852, up to 12,000 settlers were crossing Wasco and Warm Springs territories each year.

In 1855, Joel Palmer, superintendent of the Oregon Territory, received his orders to clear the Indians from their lands. He did so by negotiating a series of Indian treaties including the one establishing the Warm Springs Reservation. Under the treaty, the Warm Springs and Wasco tribes relinquished approximately ten million acres of land but reserved the Warm Springs Reservation for their exclusive use. The tribes also kept their rights to harvest fish, game and other foods off the reservation in their usual and accustomed places.

Early Reservation Years

Traditional ways of life changed greatly after the Wasco and Warm Springs tribes relocated onto the Warm Springs Reservation. Salmon wasn’t as plentiful as it had been on the Columbia, and the harsher climate and poor soil conditions made farming more difficult. They quickly found that their former economic system was no longer workable. In addition, federal policies to assimilate the Indian people forced them to abandon many of their customary ways in favor of modern schools, sawmills, and other infrastructure foreign to the tribes

Paiute Settlement at Warm Springs

The settlement of the Paiutes on the Warm Springs Reservation began in 1879 when 38 Paiutes moved to Warm Springs from the Yakama Reservation. These 38 people, along with many other Paiutes, had been forced to move to the Yakama Reservation and Fort Vancouver after joining the Bannocks in a war against the U.S. Army. Eventually more of them came, and they became a permanent part of the Warm Springs Reservation.

Tribal Government and Indian Self-Determination

In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (Wheeler-Howard Act) to revitalize Indian communities and to bolster Indian tribes as governments. The IRA recognized the necessity for tribal governments to manage their own affairs and offered Federal assistance to tribes organizing under its provisions. The Warm Springs, Wasco, and Paiute tribes studied the IRA carefully before deciding to accept its terms.

In 1937, the three tribes organized as the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon by adopting a constitution and by-laws for tribal government history. In 1938, they formally accepted a corporate charter from the United States for their business endeavors. These organizational documents declared a new period of tribal self-government on the Warm Springs Reservation.

he Columbia River Plateau and Basin provided a rich life for the first people of the region. A dynamic culture flourished along this artery of life. The people shared similar languages, cultures, diets, religions, a history of interaction, and a sharing of common resources and trade. The Columbia River and lands provided salmon, the foothills and mountain slopes were plentiful with deer, roots and berries that sustained a healthy diet.

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