Northwest Fisheries: 50 years of Boldt!

Yesterday was Superbowl Sunday—and a fine game it was. Congrats to the Chiefs! Today is Abe Lincoln’s birthday, which we celebrated separately until we bundled him with Washington and made it Presidents’ Day.

Today is also the fiftieth anniversary of the Boldt Decision, made in Federal District Court, which upheld Northwest Indians’ treaty rights to fish off reservation in their “usual and accustomed places.” When Northwest salmon and steelhead were abundant, this was no big deal. But as dams came to the rivers, development destroyed spawning habitat, and the numbers of commercial and sport fishers grew, the states of Oregon and Washington declared that tribal members needed to follow the same rules as their white neighbors. Alvin Josephy chronicled it all in “The Great Northwest Fishing War,”a chapter in Now That the Buffalo’s Gone, (Marc Jaffe and I included it in our Josephy Reader, The Longest Trail.)

In the 1960s and 70s, borrowing tactics from the Civil Rights Movement, Tribal fishers rebelled at the states’ restrictions, casting their nets in usual and accustomed places outside of white authorities’ seasons. They were beaten, harassed, and arrested—Billy Frank, Jr. in Washington 50 times. Real wars broke out in Oregon and Washington waterways. The national press stepped in when actor Marlon Brando joined them in the boats to get arrested!

Josephy tells the long story, which begins with the Isaac Stevens treaties of the 1850s, and wends its way through treaties made and broken, reservation lands gobbled up, and Indians persistent attempts in state and federal courts to Judge George Boldt. Boldt asked his law clerks to check the dictionaries and usages of “in common with” in the 1850s, the Stevens treaty period. The treaties all said that tribal fishing and hunting rights were to be exercised “in common with the citizenry.” The clerks came back with “shared equally,” and Boldt awarded the Tribes half the catch!

The backlash was severe. There were effigy hangings, refusals to sell Indians supplies and gas for their boats. Individual Indians were harassed and spit on. It was a trying time as the case gradually made its way to the Supreme Court; in 1979 the Supreme Court upheld Boldt.

There’s another chapter to the story. If Indians were to get half the catch for their subsistence, there had to be fish! And as dams and habitat destruction reduced the runs of salmon and steelhead, the number of fish making annual migrations to spawning grounds and the number of smolts making it back to the ocean plummeted.

Today, primarily with money from the dams—through the Bonneville Power Association—Northwest Tribal fisheries are the most vigorous and skilled practitioners of freshwater ///fish biology and fisheries preservation. Even the sport and commercial fishers who once saw “half the catch” as doom now look to the Indians as their allies.

Some of you might have caught the recent The Seattle Times editorial. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Rare is the legal ruling so transformative to a state, a region, and its inhabitants. In affirming tribal fishing harvest rights, Boldt’s decision righted a long-term injustice against the state’s Indigenous people.

“The tribes would become natural resource co-managers, alongside the state, and afforded an equal share of the salmon sacred to them. They have wielded that influence to fight for the restoration of Puget Sound and wider Salish Sea, the inland marine waters of Washington and British Columbia, and the dwindling population of salmon species within it.”

Years from now, diehards will remember this Superbowl, and a few people will still mark February 12 as Abe Lincoln’s birthday. And if salmon and steelhead survive in Pacific Northwest Rivers and Streams, February 12, 1974 will be a letter day in that survival.

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Photo: Marlon Brando and Billy Frank, Jr. , HistoryLink

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