TOPPENISH — The nation’s second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, heard pleas Tuesday from the Yakama Nation to tear out the lower Snake River dams and to take action on missing and murdered tribal members.
The husband of Vice President Kamala Harris met with the Yakama Nation Tribal Council at Legends Casino, pledging to pass on their concerns to Harris when he saw her Tuesday night and to President Joe Biden when he next sees him.
It was Emhoff’s second visit on behalf of the Biden administration to a tribal nation, a sign of how seriously the administration takes tribal concerns, he said.
“It is very humbling to be on your land,” he said, after bowing his head during a song of blessing for him and Harris. It is the same song that has protected the Yakama people in Washington state as they went out to gather food and the veterans in the tribe, he was told.
Emhoff called the blessing “very emotional” and said he would never forget it, before he and the council began to discuss issues.
He was an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles before Harris became vice president and now is a faculty member at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Over the last month he has been traveling the nation, including to promote the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package signed by Biden.
“This administration is fully committed to working in partnership with Indian country,” he said.
Emhoff’s visit showed that tribal nations are no longer taken for granted by the U.S. government, said Roger Fiander, chairman of the Yakama Nation General Council.
Tribal council Chairman Delano Saluskin brought up the proposal of Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to breach the four Lower Snake River dams to help restore endangered salmon, saying the Yakama Nation supports it.
Under Simpson’s proposal $34 billion in taxpayer money would be spent to help those who now benefit from the dams, including the Tri-Cities, irrigators and shippers.
“We are fish people,” Saluskin said. “We live off fish. We honor the fish in our first foods ceremony. And if we don’t do something now we are all going to be competing to catch that last salmon.”
Emhoff made no comment on the issue, instead discussing the new administration’s concern for missing and murdered indigenous women, the toll the COVID pandemic has taken and the administration’s proposals to strengthen the economy, including for the nation’s tribes.
The federal investment in native communities is $31 billion. It provides immediate relief to those who need it most, support for native businesses, housing and schools, and provides money for increased COVID vaccinations.
Emhoff was scheduled to tour the Federal Emergency Management Agency Community Vaccination Center at the Central Washington Fairgrounds in Yakima with Gov. Jay Inslee early Tuesday afternoon.
“The pandemic has really taken a disproportionate toll on Native American communities, and your community as well,” Emoff said.
The economic stimulus measure is just the first step, “a stop-gap,” to address urgent needs, he said.
Now the Biden administration is working on the American Jobs Plan to invest in infrastructure and create good jobs to provide a more equitable future for everyone, he said.
The Yakama Nation has been hit hard by the COVID pandemic, with about 1,200 people testing positive for the disease and 49 tribal members dying, Saluskin said. One of those who died was an elected tribal official.
The pandemic also has contributed to drug and alcohol use, suicide and violence as young people have had nothing to do, said LaRena Sohappy vice chairwoman of the Yakima Nation General Council.
“(COVID) is taking our children away from us,” she said.
COVID also has impacted the council’s ability to govern as it closed down the tribal headquarters, Saluskin said.
Its mills could not get all the timber needed. Tribal schools shifted to remote learning. And many tribal ceremonies important to passing on the tribe’s culture to its children could not be held or had to be altered to protect members from exposure to COVID, he said.
“We really have had to deal with a lot,” Saluskin said.
COVID also has hurt the most vulnerable among the Yakamas, he said.
“We have a real shortage of housing on the reservation,” leaving people homeless and preventing some working tribal members from securing housing, he said.
The tribal council wants programs that will allow people to help themselves, rather than getting handouts, he said.
Cold case murders
The Yakama Nation’s Police Department, working with other agencies, currently has 20 cold case homicide investigations, 15 missing adult and 14 active runaway investigations.
Native Americans make up about 2% of the Washington state population, but a Washington State Patrol report shows that native women account for 7% of the state’s reported missing women.
“The federal government should not wait on further studies and task force reports before it takes purposeful action,” said Athena Sanchey-Yallop, secretary of the tribal council in a letter she gave to Emhoff, after telling him how frightened women are even to discuss the issue.
The federal government has previously promised assistance in resolving historical cases, but help did not materialize, she said.
The Yakama Nation supports the request of Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., for a cold case task force in Eastern Washington.
It also needs federal money for federal and tribal law enforcement; for law enforcement training on culturally appropriate responses; and victim and family support services, according to Sanchey-Yallup.
Addressing the issue of missing and murdered Native Americans is a priority for Biden and Harris, Emhoff said.
Usually the Yakama Nation welcomes visitors with food and a handshake, Saluskin said.
But because COVID prevents the Yakama Nation Tribal Council from sharing a meal with Emhoff, the council presented him with a tribal blanket for Emhoff and Harris and another one to give to Biden.