OPINION: ‘We must reflect on our history and look forward’

After 80 years, Kerr Dam switches to tribal control Historic transfer

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†I have the good fortune of being Tribal Council chairman during the long-awaited Sept. 5 date when the Confederated Salish, Pend díOreille and Kootenai Tribes take possession of Kerr Dam. This day has been coming since 1985, when the option to purchase and operate the hydroelectric facility was secured by our predecessors.

But the issues around the acquisition of the dam have a lot in common with many significant events throughout tribal history.

In the coyote stories that I heard growing up, it always seemed that an important part of the story was taking place when opposite forces were interacting in a significant event.

The story of the dam is a good example of one of those times.

Many members are proud of the tribesí efforts to gain control of the natural resources within our nation, while others remain skeptical for various reasons.

Eighty years ago Chief Koostahtah was struggling with a battle of opposites.

On the one hand, progress was promising to bring much to the people in the form of electricity and a somewhat easier lifestyle. The struggle to survive had worn thin and anything that would offer relief from it was welcome.

On the other hand, in order to see the benefits of progress, a dam would have to be built on a spiritual place for traditional people. Replacing the natural waterfalls with a man-made structure was perceived by some as going against the spiritual teachings of the elders.

The chief knew the spiritual ways of the people were often linked to places where cultural events took place. But he also knew that the dam was going to be built with or without tribal support. In the final analysis, he realized it was more important to preserve the belief and world view that resulted from spiritual cultural events than the places where those events occurred.

He knew he could not stop the forces in motion, so instead he sought to navigate the project to minimize the blow to our culture and to try to retain some of the benefits that would come with the dam.

While most people outside of our community (and a few within) saw the arrival of Kerr Dam as a great addition in bringing abundant power to advance further developments, there were many who saw it as a threat to an existing way of life. However, in everything lies its opposite. The history of the Confederates Salish and Kootenai Tribes can be summed up as a struggle of opposites. From assimilation efforts in boarding schools, to allotments, to reorganization, to termination, to self-determination, to cultural revival, our story has been one of an internal struggle of opposing views.

So eight decades later, we are faced with a similar struggle. CSKT is set to become the first tribal government to own and operate a hydroelectric facility that will sell energy on the open market. Economic success and self-sufficiency are part of CSKTís vision statement. Yet as we move toward gaining greater financial returns, we still find ourselves holding a property that was viewed in its initial concept as a destroyer of an important aspect of the culture.

Our 8,000 tribal members view these modern projects with conflicting views. Some opponents wonder if we have the capability to run the dam and still others see it as counter to cultural values. But I believe with complete confidence that we have the skills, training and capacity to operate this facility, just as we have successfully managed other resources where skeptics doubted our capability, such as owning Mission Valley Power and protecting the southern half of Flathead Lake.

CSKT is prepared and ready to take control of yet another great project. Moving on to greater challenges is a theme that will continually accompany our tribes. The challenge of determining our own future while balancing economic success with the values of our ancestors is the most constant concern among leadership. We try to keep in mind that opposite forces are at work in every venture and the correct balance is difficult.

So yes, we look forward to the purchase of Kerr Dam. We just acknowledge it in a different way and for different reasons than those who donít share our culture or history.


Vernon Finley, of Polson, is chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

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