For President Harry Truman, the Grand Coulee Dam in northeastern Washington state helped end World War II by powering the Hanford nuclear plant, which provided the plutonium used to bomb Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.
For the Spokane Tribe of Indians, construction of America’s largest concrete dam brought only hardship: an end to the Columbia River salmon runs that fed the tribe for centuries, the loss of 40 percent of their homes and flooding on more than 3,000 acres.
“We had a big farm: We had horses and cows and a big garden. . . . My mom and dad . . . lost everything,” Marian Wynecoop, 90, a tribal member from the reservation town of Wellpinit, Wash., told a Senate panel in September.
In a reversal of fortunes, the tribe finally may get $53 million for its past suffering.The tribe has had compensation bills introduced in each of the last seven sessions of Congress, but the legislation has always stalled.
Two things are different this time: The Obama administration is backing the legislation, and it’s getting a big push from Washington state Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who took over as the head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in January.
“Nothing ever is a slam-dunk, because you’re always at the mercy of somebody somewhere, but I do feel real good about it,” said Rudy Peone, the second-year chairman of the tribe.
Two years ago, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said there was no legal reason to settle with the tribe after it missed a decades-old deadline to seek damages from the federal Indian Claims Commission.
But the administration now says the tribe is morally entitled to a federal payment, a full 80 years after construction on the 550-foot-high dam began.
There’s one big obstacle, however: No one knows where the money will come from.
“We will have to find a way to pay for this settlement,” said Kevin Washburn, whom President Barack Obama appointed to take over as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs last fall.
Washburn, who testified with Wynecoop before the Indian Affairs panel, said paying the tribe was “the right thing to do.” He noted that in 1994, the neighboring Colville tribe won a similar $53 million settlement for damage linked to construction of the dam, calling it “an accident of history” that the Spokane tribe hadn’t yet received compensation.
“While this outcome can be explained legally, it is difficult to justify morally,” Washburn said.
The change of heart marks a big win for the Spokane Tribe, which was surprised to encounter resistance from the Obama team in 2011.
Up to this point, the tribe has received only one payment from the federal government: $4,700, back in 1940, two years before construction on the dam ended.
“We’ve been waiting for this for three-quarters of a century – a lot longer than I’ve been here,” Peone said.
If the tribe does get the money, Peone said, much of it will be spent on culture and language programs for its 2,900 members.
The dam spurred extensive white settlement in the region and put thousands to work in the 1930s as one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s premier public works projects.
Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt in 1945, boasted of the project’s value when his whistle-stop re-election tour headed for the Pacific Northwest in June of 1948.
“Had we not had that power source, it would have been almost impossible to win this war,” Truman said.
But while the dam was a boon for some, Peone said it had brought “severe devastation” to his tribe, taking away land that held economic, cultural and spiritual significance for its members.
“We were river people,” Peone said. “We were fishing people.”
Wynecoop told the Senate panel that she was attending an Indian school in Oregon when construction of the dam began.“I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “When I got home, all my mom and dad got was $1,300. . . . They had a hard life after that.”
Peone, who made two trips to Washington, D.C., in September to lobby for the settlement, said the proposed deal was a good one for U.S. taxpayers and reflected good-faith negotiations by tribal officials. He said the $53 million in “back pay” represented roughly half the $100 million in compensation that the tribe had sought from Congress two years ago.
In addition, the tribe would receive roughly $4 million annually in future years, with the exact amount tied to the amount of power generated. Those payments would come from the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal nonprofit agency that markets electrical power in the Pacific Northwest.
The agency had opposed previous efforts to settle but is on board with the latest plan, spokesman Doug Johnson said. He said the settlement would create “upward rate pressure,” but that any increase wouldn’t happen until at least 2015. Any added cost from the settlement would be minimal, he said.
“We’re talking about pennies on a retail customer’s bill,” Johnson said.
Washburn told senators that he’s been working on the issue for months, partly at the urging of Cantwell.
“I congratulate you for your persistence,” Washburn told Cantwell at the Sept. 10 hearing. “I am not going to thank you for your patience, because I haven’t seen much.”
Cantwell said it was “vitally important” for Congress to approve the settlement this year, adding that all other options had been exhausted.Noting that previous settlement bills have passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate but never at the same time, she said: “Maybe this Congress will be a charm.”