Mending the net
In the Fish Wars of the 1960s, tribal fishers were arrested for asserting their right to harvest salmon. A new state law will finally allow them to clear their convictions
For years, American Indians would cast their nets into rivers to catch salmon, only to be arrested by state wildlife and law enforcement officers once the fishers came ashore. Sometimes, officers would even pull them off the water.
They did so under the pretext that Pacific Northwest tribes were harvesting fish off-season, even though an 1854 treaty states that the tribes have a right to fish and hunt “at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”
The 12-year dispute, known locally as the Fish Wars, ended in 1974, when District Court Judge George Boldt ruled that the state was wrong, and determined that the tribes had a right to half of all of the harvestable fish in Washington.
The ruling allowed the tribes to fish without fear of arrest, but it did not clear the records of those convicted for fishing. American Indians who were arrested and convicted in protest “fish-ins” on the many rivers that trickle into the Puget Sound remained classified as criminals.
Tribes saw the arrests as unconstitutional, and the arrests have left their mark. Criminal records can prevent people from traveling out of the country and adopting children.
“All of those convictions should have been wiped clean,” said Shawn Yanity, chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, “because they were proved to be invalid.”
Now, half a century after actor Marlon Brando threw a net into the Puyallup River in solidarity with tribal fisherman, state lawmakers have come up with a way to right some of those wrongs.
The Washington State Legislature passed a bill this session that allows tribal members arrested before 1975 to ask a judge to vacate their misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony convictions if they were exercising their treaty-fishing rights. About 80 fishing-related arrests prior to 1975 could be eligible, according to the Washington State Patrol.
The law also allows a judge to vacate other charges; some people were arrested for civil disobedience or contempt of court. Family members of deceased people may be allowed to clear records posthumously.
Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, a lawmaker who was not even alive during the Fish Wars, proposed the law.
“You would think that we would admit that we were wrong and apologize,” said Sawyer, who is 30. “I was just surprised that no one had removed these convictions, because frankly, they were unconstitutional.”
Northwest tribes struggled for more than 100 years to keep their right to harvest salmon. The right dates back to the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek. The tribes in that treaty traded land in exchange for reservations and the right to continue hunting and fishing.
Washington’s war on Indian fishing began almost immediately, said Hank Adams, 70, a Sioux-Assiniboine American Indian who organized fish protests around the Puget Sound in the 1960s and ’70s.
“It started as quickly as the treaties were signed,” he said.
Washington tried to limit tribal fishing, Adams said, particularly as canning machines were invented and canned fish became a profitable enterprise.
For years leading up to 1964, the state restricted net fishing on the rivers at certain times of year. Indian fishers argued that they had a treaty right to fish any time.
Influenced by the growing civil rights movement, Adams and others started organizing nonviolent protests, most famously in 1964 when Brando, along with members of local tribes and non-Indian allies, cast fishing nets into the Puyallup River.
In that time, police arrested Adams, Billy Frank, Jr. — current chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission — Brando, social activist Dick Gregory and his wife Lillian, among many others. The current bill will only apply to members of Washington tribes. Adams will not be able to clear his record because he is Sioux-Assiniboine, tribes from the northern Great Plains states.
Police arrested the fishers, confiscated nets and other fishing equipment. The conflicts at times became violent, particularly in 1970, when police broke up an encampment and, using clubs and tear gas, arrested 60 people.
Boldt’s landmark 1974 ruling, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979, has influenced every element of commercial and recreational fishing in Washington ever since, said Richard Whitney, a retired University of Washington fisheries professor.
“It improved fisheries management enormously,” said Whitney, whom Boldt appointed to enforce the ruling.
The decision meant the state and tribes had to manage salmon harvesting based on numbers of fish, not hunches or politics, he said.
The tribes and the state government now negotiate to determine how many fish should be harvested to maintain salmon populations in Puget Sound. The rights were also extended to shellfish harvesting.
The law also provides an opportunity for the public to learn about a pivotal moment in Northwest History.
“We’re talking about two generations who weren’t really affected by the century-long war by the state of Washington,” Adams said. “A lot of people aren’t really knowledgeable about what went on.”
CommentsWhy no mention of Bob Satiacum, a member of the Mukleshoot Nation?
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