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Indigenous youth bring concerns to Merkley Town Hall on the Umatilla Indian Reservation

May 21, 2024

Senator Jeff Merkley stopped at the Nixyaawii Governance Center to hold a town hall during his tour of eastern Oregon. During the event, Merkley met with the youth councils for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). Luka Worden, member of the CTUIR Jr. Youth Leadership Council, reacts to Sen. Jeff Merkley’s questions regarding her “Free the Snake River” shirt. Photos by Jill-Marie Gavin

By Jill-Marie Gavin, CRITFC Communications

MISSION — U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) hosted a town hall Sunday, May 19, at the Nixyaawii Governance Center. The event emphasized the unique challenges and initiatives led by the Indigenous community in preserving their environment and cultural heritage and provided a vital platform for Indigenous voices to address their concerns. Topics highlighted included natural resources protection, salmon restoration, and community threats and crises.

Among the speakers were members of the senior and junior CTUIR Youth Leadership Council, who raised concerns and issues facing youth and future generations.

Awna’ee “Katty” Najera, the 12-year-old chair of the CTUIR Jr. Youth Council, shared her personal story about the impact of addiction within tribal communities and asked Merkley about his efforts to combat alcohol and drug abuse among middle and high school students. Merkley acknowledged the critical need for more facilities and funding to support addiction treatment and behavioral health services in Oregon. He emphasized the importance of school counselors in assisting students facing these challenges.

The discussion then shifted to environmental concerns, with Sunhawk Thomas, a senior at Pendleton High School and tribal youth council member, asking Merkley about the “crisis of water and land.” Merkley responded by highlighting several key initiatives. He mentioned the CTUIR’s ongoing water rights settlement, which aims to secure water for irrigation, ranching, and farming, ensuring the sustainable use of this vital resource.

Merkley also addressed the salmon crisis on the Columbia River. He discussed a new initiative designed to improve the river system’s functionality for salmon and the broader ecosystem. This initiative includes examining the feasibility of removing the Snake River dams, considering their significant role in hydropower, irrigation, and flood control.

The senator underscored the historical importance of water issues in Oregon, highlighting the critical role water plays in the region’s ecological and economic health, necessitating ongoing consultation and collaboration among all stakeholders. He also took time to note the work being done to address the dire situation Columbia Basin salmon populations are facing. He shared work being done in the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative and mentioned the ongoing assessment of the potential removal of the Snake River dams to help save salmon.

The town hall further showcased innovative approaches to environmental education and engagement spearheaded by the CTUIR.

In a poignant moment, sisters Abigayle McIntosh, 12, and Lisa Faye McIntosh, 11, brought attention to the MMIWP crisis. Abigayle, a member of the CTUIR Jr. Youth Council, asked Merkley what is being done to address the ongoing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People. The timing of the town hall coincides with the national month of awareness regarding the MMIWP crisis.

Abigayle also inquired how families of missing and murdered loved ones are being communicated with and kept up to date on their cases. Merkley expressed his deep concern for the issue and emphasized the need for better resources, communication, and federal support to address this crisis effectively. He committed to advocating for increased funding and improved protocols to support affected families and ensure justice and accountability.

Discussing the crisis and how it has impacted his leadership, Merkley said, “When I first saw tribal members with the red handprint on their faces, I thought it’s a very visible indication of saying to the world we will not be silent, we will act on this issue. That’s really so powerful.”

Merkley concluded the town hall by acknowledging the significant challenges facing America’s families, farmers, and environment. He called for increased citizen engagement and systemic reform to address these issues effectively, stressing the importance of public outreach and participation in democratic processes.