US admits dams in Pacific north-west have devastated Native Americans

<span>Water moves through a spillway of the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River near Almota, Washington.</span><span>Photograph: Nicholas K Geranios/AP</span>
Water moves through a spillway of the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River near Almota, Washington.Photograph: Nicholas K Geranios/AP

The US government, in a report published on Tuesday, acknowledged for the first time the harms that federal dams have inflicted on Native American tribes in the US Pacific north-west.

The report by the interior department details the “historic, ongoing and cumulative impacts of federal Columbia River dams on Columbia River Basin Tribes”, including how dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have devastated salmon runs, inundated villages and burial grounds, and deprived tribal members of the ability to exercise traditional ways of life.

The Columbia River basin, an area roughly the size of Texas, historically supported abundant wild salmon, which play an important role in tribal identity and spirituality, as well as steelhead and native resident fish.

The construction of large hydroelectric dams throughout the basin at the turn of the 20th century impeded fish migration and flooded entire villages and towns, forcing people to relocate and transforming the ecosystem.

Of the 16 stocks of salmon and steelhead that once populated the river system, four are extinct and seven are listed under the Endangered Species Act, according to the Associated Press.

Tribal communities were “disproportionately harmed” by the dams, the report says, resulting in “profound losses” that have had “traumatic” impacts including by altering traditional diets and lifestyles and “fundamentally changing how Tribal members teach and raise children”. Those cultural, spiritual and economic detriments continue to this day.

The government “downplayed or accepted” the risk to salmon in its drive to bring electricity, irrigation and jobs to nearby communities other than the tribes, transferring wealth away from the tribes to non-Native people, the report says.

While it acknowledged that federal dams and reservoirs in the basin affected all of the local tribes, the report focused on the circumstances of the eight tribal nations most immediately affected by 11 dams.

The Yakama Nation, one of the tribes affected by the Columbia River basin dams, said in a statement that the report was “an important cabinet-level acknowledgment of the many decades of undelivered promises”.

The report comes amid the Biden administration’s $1bn plan, announced in December, to work alongside the tribes to restore the region’s wild salmon populations before more become extinct.

The plan stopped short of calling for the removal of four controversial dams on the Snake River, as some conservationists and tribal leaders have urged. But officials said it would increase the production and storage of renewable energy to offset the hydropower should Congress ever agree to breach them.

“Since time immemorial, members of these Tribes and their ancestors stewarded these native species and relied upon their abundance as the staples of their daily diets and ceremony,” the Biden administration said in a statement. It said the report “marks the first time that the US government has comprehensively detailed the harms that federal dams have and continue to inflict on Tribes in the Pacific Northwest.”

Acknowledging the devastating impact of federal hydropower dams on tribal communities is “essential to our efforts to heal and ensure that salmon are restored to their ancestral waters”, the interior secretary, Deb Haaland, said.

“As part of our ongoing commitment to honoring our federal commitments to tribal nations, the interior department will continue to pursue comprehensive and collaborative basin-wide solutions to restore native fish populations, empower tribes and meet the many resilience needs of communities across the region.”