Our people are fishing people. The fisheries provided food to our people since time unknown. In 1896, it was noted by one of the agents that there was enough fish to sustain our people forever. Efforts by the State of Washington to control this fast diminishing resource was a miserable failure. Years of allowing irresponsible regulation of commercial fisheries, environmental degradation and unwarranted forest practices were some of the causes of serious failure of this valuable resource.
In the latter part of the 1960’s a resurgence of effort was made to revive our fishing rights. By this time the State of Washington had taken a position that Indian fishing was illegal. Continuous efforts of tribal fishermen to carry on their treaty rights were met with arrests, beatings and confiscation of their gear and catch. Several court cases were filed and appealed.
It became necessary to take drastic measures to assure protection for fishermen and their families to exercise their rights under the treaty to take fish at their usual and accustomed areas. An armed camp was set up by some tribal members, Indians from all over, and others who supported the Tribe in regaining a rightful practice. After six weeks this courageous stand was met with hostility by the State of Washington’s Fish and Game Department. Hundreds of local law enforcement officers joined the State in an effort to close this camp, located on tribal land.
Many of the fishing right supporters were arrested, maced, beaten and assaulted. Many were charged with either assault or inciting a riot. All of this occurred on our river. Some of the supporters were facing long jail sentences of up to fifteen years in prison. The charges were eventually dropped. Because of the seriousness of this situation investigations into the matters were started.
The Federal Government then initiated a court case on the fishing right issue. This case became very important to the tribes in the State of Washington. It was called United States vs. Washington This case wound its way through the system until February of 1974, when a final decision was made by Judge George Boldt that Indian people did have the right to fish. However, it was determined that the tribes were entitled to 50% of the fish. Many felt they lost half of their entitlement. One of the mandates of this court order was that the tribes should regulate their own fisheries. If they failed to do this the State would have to.
With this decision ended years of hardship and having to hide like common criminals to exercise our rights to the fishery. Our tribe, and many others, have since developed sophisticated programs to enhance and improve the fishery on our reservations and in the State of Washington. Cooperative efforts of biologist and technical staff are proving that this can be done.