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World & Nation

Washington tribe saves Snoqualmie Falls land, held sacred, from development

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Visitors photograph Snoqualmie Falls, a 270-foot-high waterfall east of Seattle. Members of the Snoqualmie tribe believe that mist rising from the falls lifts their prayers.
(Richard Read / Los Angeles Times )

For years, Native Americans who revere a towering waterfall in the misty hills east of Seattle have opposed construction of a subdivision, hotel and convention center on surrounding land they hold sacred.

Members of the Snoqualmie Tribe prayed, collected signatures and appealed to Congress. Their struggles to preserve the Snoqualmie Falls land mirrored more widely known attempts by Native Americans to protect sacred sites, such as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and a giant telescope planned on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea mountain.

On Friday, Snoqualmie tribal leaders stood in sunshine by the roaring falls and announced a deal with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, which agreed to part with surrounding land, canceling construction. In the $125-million pact inked Thursday, the Snoqualmie Tribe bought the Salish Lodge & Spa, which will continue operating at its perch above the falls, as well as 45 acres where the housing, hotel and convention center would have gone.

Tribal elders spoke with emotion of acquiring and conserving the land where their ancestors were buried. The falls and the town of Snoqualmie gained fame during the 1990s in scenes from the “Twin Peaks” television series, much of which was shot in the community 30 miles from Seattle.

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“We have reclaimed our most sacred and traditional land,” said Snoqualmie Tribal Chairman Robert de los Angeles. “We have taken another step toward healing the desecration of this area.”

The Snoqualmie Tribe was one of the largest in the Puget Sound region, with about 4,000 members, when its leaders joined other chiefs who signed an 1855 treaty with the U.S. government. Its members dispersed. The Snoqualmie people lost federal recognition as a tribe in 1953, but regained the status in 1999.

The tribe now has about 500 members, many of whom live outside the region, and operates a casino opened in 2008 on reservation land.

The larger Muckleshoot Tribe is based southwest of Snoqualmie on a reservation near Auburn, Wash. The Muckleshoots outbid the Snoqualmie Tribe in 2007 when they bought the acreage by the falls and Salish Lodge, an 86-room hotel that began in 1916 as a small inn.

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Snoqualmie tribal members objected in 2015 when the city built a traffic roundabout on land they also consider sacred near the falls, which attract about 2 million visitors a year. The road construction project unearthed a spear point estimated to be thousands of years old.

Previously, the tribe had gone to court in an attempt to decommission a hydroelectric plant operating in tunnels beneath the 270-foot-high falls. But it lost the case, and Puget Sound Energy continues to operate the plant, generating electricity by diverting water above the falls and discharging it below.

The diversion diminishes the majesty of the falls and the rising mists believed to carry prayers aloft, said Lois Sweet Dorman, a Snoqualmie tribal elder.

“We’re still looking for a natural flow of water over the falls,” she said.

Snoqualmie Vice Chairman Michael Ross said the two tribal councils met a couple of years ago to discuss the possibility of a property deal. Negotiations picked up 10 months ago, he said.

A Muckleshoot spokesman declined to comment on the property sale.

“It is a great feeling when tribes can come together,” Jaison Elkins, the Muckleshoot Tribe’s chairman, said in a written statement.

Snoqualmie tribal members said that the Muckleshoots’ plans for up to 210 houses, a hotel and a convention center — approved by the city on the forested site — would not go forward.

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After a news conference at the viewpoint overlooking the falls, Ross walked to a display posted by the power company that describes its hydroelectric operation. One of several signboards presents the company’s version of Snoqualmie tribal history and includes an early-1900s photo of tribal members, but does not identify them by name.

Ross pointed out Ollie Moses, his great-grandmother, standing in the photo, wearing a white blouse and dark hat. She was thought to be 110 when she died in 2000.

Ross, 42, remembers that when he was 5 or 6, family members brought Moses to the falls in a wheelchair. “She was upset, because she saw people taking pictures and dropping garbage,” he said. In her day, she told family members, only shamans, elders and people seeking healing came to the falls.

The tribe plans to create new displays so that visitors can learn about Snoqualmie culture and traditions, Ross said. He said he came to the falls recently, on the day that tribal members had voted to authorize the land deal.

“I cried,” he said. “I cried like I’d never cried before.”


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