Why you should care
The Fish Wars have been forgotten by history. But when it comes to treaty rights, they mean everything.
As Billy Frank Jr. emptied his salmon net, two game wardens came in swinging. The 14-year-old member of the Nisqually nation struggled as they shoved his face into the mud. That was 1954, and his clashes with the authorities had yet to become routine. But over the course of his life, he would be beaten, tear-gassed and arrested more than 50 times, all for defending his right to fish.
These clashes with law enforcement in the 1960s and 1970s would later become known as the Fish Wars. Through decades of protests, including “fish-ins” similar to lunch counter sit-ins, Native American tribes throughout the Puget Sound region and Pacific Northwest fought for recognition from the U.S. government of fishing rights codified in treaties more than a century earlier. “This was our civil rights movement here in the state of Washington,” says Willie Frank the III, Billy Frank Jr.’s son, a Nisqually Tribal Council member.
Since colonial expansion into the North American continent, U.S. forces have made treaties with Native American tribes. Every one of those treaties was often amended without Native consent, ignored or otherwise disrespected. But the Fish Wars marked a turning point. When authorities repeatedly ignored legal commitments made in the past guaranteeing Native tribes the right to traditional practices, those authorities found themselves not just on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of the court system.
[Treaties] are absolutely critical documents, just as important as the Constitution is to the United States.
Joshua Reid, member of the Snohomish Indian Nation
The conflict in this case was sparked by dwindling fish stocks. Habitat loss and urban development strained Washington’s salmon fisheries throughout the 1900s, says Joshua L. Reid, a member of the Snohomish Indian Nation and professor of American Indian studies and history at the University of Washington. At the same time, there was an uptick in non-Native fishing around the Puget Sound, from commercial salmon fishers and sport fishers.
At the time, commercial fishers were catching about 80 percent of salmon, compared to the 6 percent taken in by Native tribes. Still, Native people were vilified by some. Stories were published in local papers, including The Seattle Times, framing Native fishers as “malicious opportunists” for capturing the last salmon trying to return upriver to spawn, writes Reid in his book The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs. Initiative 77, a ballot measure approved in 1934 that prevented use of gear like fish traps off reservations, disadvantaged Native fishers who used nets (without impacting the high-tech equipment favored by commercial operations). “It just made for very convenient copy — fueled by racism — that Indians were blamed for the sorry state of the salmon fishery,” says Reid.
Much of the conflict boils down to disagreement over treaty language from the previous century, Reid explains. The Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, among others, ceded roughly 2 million acres of Native American land around the Puget Sound, Washington and nearby inlets to the U.S. government in exchange for the establishment of three reservations and cash payments over 20 years. The treaty also included language codifying that Native people reserved “the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places in common with the citizens of the territory” — a right that would never expire for those belonging to the Nisqually, Puyallup, Steilacoom, Squawskin, S’Homamish, Stehchass, T’Peeksin, Squi-Aitl and Sahehwamish nations.
That legalese would prove a lightning rod in later years when the state of Washington began taking more aggressive conservation steps, drawing boundaries around where people could and couldn’t fish. Although Supreme Court law substantiated that treaties took primacy as the law of the land, the state saw Native people as subject to state law, like all American citizens. When Washington passed restrictions about where non-Native people could fish, the state expected Indians to abide by them too — even though those regulations violated treaty rights.
Native fishers had been suing the federal government state for fishing rights as early as 1905, leading to a legal precedent that meant Native people could continue fishing wherever they’d fished back when the treaties were signed, including off reservations. But this stoked frustration among White Washingtonians, fueling a narrative that Native people were “supercitizens” with “special rights,” says Reid. State officials often arrested Native fishers despite their legal rights, confiscating boats and equipment.
In 1963, the first fish-in took place at Frank’s Landing, a symbolic place to which Native fishermen would return. A group called the Survival of American Indians Association (SAIA) organized these protests, while there were marches at the state capitol and celebrity endorsements from the likes of Marlon Brando, who was himself arrested during a 1964 fish-in. Fish-ins spread throughout Washington and Oregon during the same period when boycotts and sit-ins were sweeping the South. Some Native activists drew inspiration from the civil rights movement, says Willie Frank the III, whose father marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Seattle. And in turn, White sports fishers drew inspiration from the success of the fish-ins, with one small group staging their own copycat protests to call attention to what they saw as unjustly preferential treatment for Native Americans.
This movement came to a head with the 1974 court case, United States v. Washington (known as the Boldt Decision). Judge George Boldt reaffirmed the “reserved right” of Native tribes to co-manage salmon and steelhead along with the state — ruling commercial and sport fishers had the right to 50 percent of Washington’s fish, while Native fishers would get the other 50 percent (an uptick from the 6 percent they’d been catching before).
Boldt’s decision upheld the supremacy of treaties laid down in the U.S. Constitution — essentially forcing the U.S. government, which had historically not always held up its end of such bargains, to make good on its promises. “[Treaties] are the foundation of our current Native nationhood — our sovereignty, our self-determination,” says Reid. “These are absolutely critical documents, just as important as the Constitution is to the United States.” The Fish Wars may be over, but their story of power and privilege has no expiration date.