Fish Wars victory still a success for South Sound tribes 40 years later

jdodge@theolympian.comFebruary 9, 2014 

A chair sat empty on the stage of the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Skookum Creek Event Center near Shelton last Wednesday in front of several hundred Western Washington Indians who gathered to celebrate the Boldt Decision, a federal court ruling issued Feb. 12, 1974, affirming their treaty rights to half of the region’s harvestable salmon.

The chair honored tribal warriors who fought in the Puget Sound Indian Wars of 1855-56. Those warriors deserve credit for helping secure South Sound tribal reservations that are far larger than those initially granted with the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1855, noted Muckleshoot tribal elder Gilbert King George.

Flash forward more than 100 years from the treaty wars and a new generation of South Sound tribal warriors fought for the right to harvest fish from their ancestral grounds, a right embedded in the 19th century treaties their forbearers and the federal government signed. Chalk it up as another victory, King George suggested.

“We are still winning,” he said, referring to salmon habitat restoration projects such as Elwha Dam removal on the Olympic Peninsula and recovery of the Nisqually Delta estuary, which wouldn’t have happened without the force of law the Boldt Decision provided.

Former Puyallup tribal chairwoman Ramona Bennett recalled how the turning point in the yearslong fishing conflicts on the Puyallup and Nisqually rivers arrived in 1970 when 60 mostly South Sound tribal families set up a fishing camp under the Highway 99 Bridge in Tacoma to stage their fish-ins. That led to violent run-ins with state game wardens and police.

“People all over the world saw Indians being clubbed and gassed and dragged off to jail,” the still-fiery Bennett recalled Wednesday. “That was our Super Bowl. It was during the peace and civil rights movements. There was change in the air, and we were part of the change.”

It was 1970 when the federal government finally agreed to take on the treaty rights case on behalf of the tribes.

It was a rude awakening for many, said Billy Frank Jr. a Nisqually tribal member who was on the front line, fishing and being arrested time after time after time.

“Nobody knew what the treaties were about,” he said, referring to the general public and the government. “The federal government never implemented it, and the schools didn’t teach it.”

The treaty fishing-rights case, known as United States v. Washington, was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt in Tacoma in 1970.

“In 1970, Boldt and the court system knew next to nothing about tribal sovereignty and Indian law,” concurred Charles Wilkinson, a University of Colorado law professor and author of 14 books on Indian law.

“At the end of the trial it was the testimony of the tribal elders that brought the whole case together,” Wilkinson said. “They offered accounts of the treaty rights, and Boldt listened raptly. He was a man of the law who rectified a generations-long imbalance in the harvest of salmon.”

Wilkinson didn’t mince words when rating the import of Boldt’s decision.

“Along with Brown v. Board of Education, the Boldt Decision stands as one of the finest and highest examples of what can be accomplished for dispossessed people,” he said. “The Boldt Decision’s place in American law is very, very high.”

Frank, who matured from an angry warrior into a tribal statesman of international regard, spoke poignantly to about 50 tribal youth who joined him on the event center stage Wednesday morning as the Boldt Decision celebration began.

“Remember what you see here today. Remember what we’re doing. Remember this day and remember the history,” he said in a reflective, teaching voice. “You’re the next generation to take the fight on for your culture and your way of life. You’re an Indian, and you gotta be proud – proud of who you are.”

I never get tired of hearing Billy Frank Jr., talk.

Just before he spoke, I had eye contact with an Indian baby, swaddled in a blanket, held by her mother sitting next to me. The mother gently tapped on her young child’s back to the beat of tribal drums. The little girl’s black eyes were deep pools, reflecting Indian time and Indian struggles and, on the eve of the 40-year anniversary of the Boldt Decision, an Indian victory worth celebrating.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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