Gorge commission elects Carina Miller, first Indigenous chair

The Columbia River Gorge Commission has elected an Indigenous chair – a first for the 35-year-old commission that has had scant tribal leadership.

Carina Miller, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, will help the commission balance its sometimes competing missions: to protect the natural beauty of the 292,000-acre Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and to advance the area’s economic development.

The scenic area, known for incredible waterfalls, plants and wildlife diversity, and endangered salmon runs, has been home to Indigenous people for millennia. Though tribes ceded lands in the scenic area as part of their treaties with the U.S. government, tribal members retain the rights to fish and gather roots and berries and continue to have a strong link with the river.

Miller has served as commissioner since her appointment by Gov. Kate Brown in 2019. She is currently one of three tribal members serving on the 13-member commission. The others are commission vice-chair Pah-tu Pitt, also a Warm Springs member, and commissioner Jerry Meninick, a Yakama Nation elder. Both were appointed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

That’s a significant rise in tribal representation for a commission that has had just a handful of Indigenous commissioners. Louie Pitt, Pah-tu Pitt’s father, was the first Indigenous person appointed to the commission in 1993. A total of five Indigenous leaders have served on the commission.

Miller said her appointment as chair is significant because “the state of Oregon has had a history of not fully supporting tribal sovereignty or always being a good political ally.”

The commission, established in 1987 by the states of Oregon and Washington, sets policy for protecting non-federal lands in the gorge. It also serves as an appeals board for land-use decisions in the area. Its forthcoming task: approving the first climate change action plan for the gorge, as mandated by the management plan approved two years ago.

Miller, who will take over as chair in January, has a background in economic development. As one of the youngest members of the tribal council at Warm Springs, she worked to bring marijuana cultivation and carbon markets to the reservation. She currently works for nonprofit Vibrant Tribal Economies, studying tribal economic health.

Miller remembers visiting the scenic area as a child with her grandmother and great-grandmother, who taught her about the removal of the tribes and instilled the importance of the river to tribal identity. She also learned to be innovative to carry on tribal values, including by working within a system that has long oppressed Native people.

“My grandmas really wanted me to be visible, but they also didn’t want us to be tokens,” said Miller. “They (taught me) that even though these systems were built to destroy us, that we had to really go in and understand them, master them, and find different ways forward, better ways.”

– Gosia Wozniacka; gwozniacka@oregonian.com; @gosiawozniacka

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