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Federal Government Acknowledges U.S. Betrayed Terms Of Treaty With 2 Oregon Tribes


The federal government is acknowledging that it defrauded two Oregon tribes. More than 150 years ago, the U.S. betrayed an agreement that protected the rights of tribal members in the northwest. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Emily Cureton reports.

EMILY CURETON, BYLINE: For decades, Warm Springs tribal member Louis Pitt Jr. has been seeking justice.

LOUIS PITT JR: The United States' good name is at stake.

CURETON: Pitt is a U.S. citizen who speaks on behalf of another sovereign nation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. He says a lot of people don't know how Oregon and Washington came to be.

PITT: Like the 10 million acres that we gave to the United States.

CURETON: In 1855, leaders of the Warm Springs and Wasco Tribe signed a treaty with the U.S. Facing threats of violence and forced removal, they agreed to settle on a reservation in what's now central Oregon.

PITT: Well, yeah, under military guard we did, yes.

CURETON: Pitt says the chiefs of the two tribes gave up that land to protect a way of life, and they expressly retain the right to hunt and fish off the reservation.

PITT: As Indian people have for thousands of years.

CURETON: But just 10 years after signing an agreement, the U.S. betrayed the terms. A federal agent drew up a so-called supplemental treaty claiming tribal members needed permission to leave the reservation and they weren't allowed to hunt and fish elsewhere. Through deception, this became federal law. Efforts to undo the change to the treaty stalled for decades, even though it wasn't enforced, says Democratic U.S. Senator of Oregon Jeff Merkley.

JEFF MERKLEY: It's still stood as a symbol of racist treatment, predatory treatment of the tribe.

CURETON: Now a bill acknowledging that is awaiting the president's signature. It was sponsored by Merkley and by Oregon Republican Representative Greg Walden and unanimously passed both chambers of Congress.

MERKLEY: We have to recognize that there are many horrific acts that will never be remedied. But when there is a moment where we can see a wrong that we can right, that's absolutely what we should do.

SE-AH-DOM EDMO: It firmly plants our movement forward based on historical truths rather than denials.

CURETON: Portland area community organizer Se-ah-dom Edmo sees any affirmation of Native American rights as connected to a broader movement for racial justice.

EDMO: I'm Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce and Yakama.

CURETON: Edmo is executive director of the MRG Foundation, which funds social justice work in communities of color. She says acknowledging shared histories of white supremacy opens up conversations about what should happen next.

EDMO: What does reparations and restorative justice look like for our communities?

CURETON: The legacy of that 155-year-old fraud against the Oregon tribes has taken many forms, says Louis Pitt Jr. of Warm Springs.

PITT: I grew up with, you know, having to learn how to run real fast and talk real good.

CURETON: He remembers being just 10 years old when two white people sicked a dog on him.

PITT: And they just didn't like me because of my color.

CURETON: Pitt has spent much of his adult life defending tribal members' treaty rights.

PITT: People think the United States of America is - are those guys with the suits and ties over on the East Coast. No. You're America. I'm America - the U.S. of A. We're the citizens. You have an obligation as well as those federal people to live up to the treaty.

CURETON: He says racism has been a constant, but the enemy has changed from an invading force to a familiar ignorance.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Cureton in Warm Springs, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Cureton