Courtesy Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
No longer the Kerr Dam, as it’s now called the Salish Kootenai Dam

Salish-Kootenai Dam: First Tribally Owned Hydro-Electric Dam in U.S.

Jack McNeel

September will be a month of great importance to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of Montana’s Flathead Reservation in the decades to come. On Thursday, September 3, the tribes paid Northwestern Energy $18.3 million for Kerr Dam, thus becoming the first tribes in the country to own a major hydro-electric dam.

On Saturday, September 5, the tribes hosted a huge event which celebrated this historic occasion, the transfer of ownership to CSKT and Energy Keepers, Inc. a tribal corporation that has been preparing for this date and will actually operate the dam.

The excitement of this event stands in stark contrast to the emotions when a site was investigated on the Flathead River in 1909 for a power plant where Kerr Dam was eventually built and completed in 1938. Tribal members were largely opposed to the construction on a scenic section of the river, a spiritual place known as the “Place of the Falling Waters.” Lives were lost during construction, including those of several tribal members.

Chairman Vernon Finley recently reiterated that feeling, saying “There’s great happiness and there’s also great sorrow. This is a spiritual place for us.”

Elder Pat Pierre is one of the few who remember that period. Pierre, now 86, told ICTMN “All the chiefs back then said ‘No, we don’t want it.’ Then Frank Kerr made them some promises but those promises never happened. Then we had the chance to become partners with the power companies. So we did, back in the 80s, with the idea we were going to buy it. The tribes themselves started putting money away to purchase the dam. Today we did.”

Finley is involved in another connection to that period. The tribes ratified the constitution in 1935 and elected 10 tribal council members. The last two head chiefs recognized by the federal government were Charlo and Koostahtah and both served on that tribal council. Koostahtah, chief of the Kootenais, was Finley’s great-grandfather.

On this morning in 2015, the basketball gymnasium at Salish Kootenai College was filled with tribal members, many in traditional regalia, and other well wishers, to celebrate this historic event. A video was shown with footage taken in the 1930s showing Chiefs Koostahtah and Charlo meeting with Frank Kerr at the falls on the Flathead River where the dam was to be constructed. It then progressed through the negotiation period in the 1980s to the present time.

Communications director Robert McDonald served as emcee, introducing several speakers including Brian Lipscomb, CEO for Energy Keepers, Inc. who will operate the dam and sell power produced here. “Acquisition, to me, is probably the most prominent exercise of the tribes’ sovereignty,” he said. “It represents and marks an occasion that’s been thought about, contemplated, prayed about and struggled with and it marks a date when us, as a tribe, can begin to exercise our rights and become an entity which is self sufficient.”

Finley received a laugh when he said, “Thursday morning the PKI officials came in and said ‘the money has been transferred so there is no turning back.’ I’ve lived my life that everything which is supposed to happen will happen and that everything we do has been predetermined. My great grandfather, who was there negotiating Kerr Dam at the beginning, set the stage in motion at that date. I’m very humbled and very glad to be descended from him. They were the ones who put it in motion for us to be here in this position today.

“The vision of the folks who were on the tribal council in the 1980s is remarkable. From 80 years ago and 30 years ago, those were the folks who really did the work. We owe them everything,” Finley said.

The largest applause of the morning was reserved for revealing the new name selected for the dam from the many names suggested by tribal members. Finley first got a laugh when he said that after all the give and take and consideration it was decided to name it ‘Vernon Finley Dam’. After the laughter died down he proudly announced it is now officially the ‘Salish Kootenai Dam.’

Salish Kootenai Dam is 541 feet long and 54 feet higher than Niagara Falls. It’s located about five miles below Kootenai Lake, the largest natural lake in the west. The price paid by the tribes was $18.3 million after arbitration. The power company had been asking more than $50 million so arbitration saved the tribes over $30 million.

Lipscomb said the staff spent the past year preparing for the acquisition. It will be staffed by 26 personnel, all highly skilled and highly qualified so they are set to hit the ground running after working behind the scenes to get acquainted with all aspects of operation. Along with a new staff, new computer systems will modernize the complex business of operating a hydroelectric dam. The tribes will assume the same regulations as its predecessor and will manage Kootenai Lake as before under the previous FERC license regarding environmental and regulatory standards.

It will provide a sizeable income to CSKT. It produces 1.1 million megawatt-hours of electricity a year which would provide power for upwards of 100,000 homes annually. In a tribal release it was stated the dam could generate up to $60 million a year on the wholesale market, depending on energy prices. The profit will come back to the company and the tribes.

As McDonald commented, “This is a historic day!”

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