The tribes on this reservation, located in the high desert on the eastern side of Mt. Hood, are accustomed to bad deals. Until the 19th century, the Wasco, the Walla Walla, and the Pauite survived off of the Columbia River, catching salmon and, eventually, trading for it.
Then in 1855 they were forced onto the Warm Springs Reservation. It was 80 miles from the river, but they could still go there to fish—that is, until the U.S. Government started to build the Bonneville dam on the river in the 1930s and flooded their fishing spots.
By the time the Dalles Dam was finished in the 1950s—ending all hopes of fishing the river and the economic independence it brought—the tribe had been decimated by other factors too, including the removal of children to boarding schools, and the drafting of men to the Army.
Now, the reservation, which spreads over 1,000 square miles in Oregon, is one of the most economically depressed places in the state. The unemployment rate is around 20 percent, and about one-third of its residents live below the poverty line. Sadly, the circumstances of Warm Springs are familiar for many Indian reservations. Nearly 30 percent of American Indians and Alaskan Natives lived in poverty in 2014, according to Census data, which is the highest rate of any race group.
Now, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are trying to reverse that history by taking advantage of the intricacies of federal law that made them sovereign tribes with the ability to make their own rules. Between 1778 and 1871, American Indian tribes signed treaties with the federal government in which they gave up land and were granted sovereign nation status.
Under the treaties, tribes have the ability to make and enforce civil and criminal laws, to zone land, and to license and regulate activities on their lands (with some exceptions in the court system).
The tribes in Warm Springs want to use that sovereign status to grow cannabis on their land and sell it off the reservation in Oregon, which in 2014 approved the use of recreational marijuana. Because the tribes are a sovereign nation, leaders say, they will be able to start an operation quickly, without having to deal with the headaches of city, county, and state government.
Recently, the tribes broke ground on a 36,000- square-foot greenhouse, and hope to get product to market by next year. Finally, after centuries of being on the bad end of deals with the government, the tribes’ status could give them a key advantage.
The idea of growing cannabis on the reservation has residents’ full-fledged support. In a referendum on whether to grow cannabis this winter, 1,252 voted for the idea, and just 198 voted against it, and turnout was high despite a snowstorm that could have kept people home.
“I don’t smoke but I thought it was a good idea to bring in revenue,” Tom Kalama, a tribal member and reservation resident who voted for the initiative, told me. And the tribes are in need of more money. Tribal members used to get $100 a month from the tribe, dividends from economic ventures, Kalama told me. Now they get $25. Seniors used to receive $600 a month, now they receive $300.
Tom Kalama was sitting under a canopy where his wife Jeanine was selling Indian tacos (meat or beans on frybread) to passers-by. Their sons, ages 44, 42, 41, and 35, want to work on the reservation, but it’s hard to find jobs, Kalama told me. Instead, they drive outside the reservation for work, if they can find anything close to home.
The move to start a cannabis operation could also serve as a blueprint for other tribes that have yet to figure out how to gain from their sovereign status.
“We’ve yet to see tribes fully exercise their sovereignty, and I think that cannabis is strangely a lens that will demonstrate the capabilities of taking that on,” Pi-Ta Pitt, the cannabis project coordinator for Warm Springs Ventures—the tribes’ economic development arm—told me.
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