I wanted to find out how Native Americans became co-equal managers of the fish and shellfish resources in western Washington State and in federal waters off the Pacific coast despite the brutal history of assimilation and genocide of Indigenous peoples at the hands of White settlers and the U.S. government. Central to this question is Native American, Billy Frank, Jr. (1931-2014), a member of the Nisqually Tribe, whose ancestral lands and waters are located in the southern Puget Sound region of western Washington. Today Washington’s salmon, steelhead and shellfish resources are managed cooperatively with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and 20 Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest. It wasn’t always this way.
In the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, tribal nations in the Pacific Northwest ceded land to the federal government in exchange for the right to access their ancestral fishing locations in perpetuity, i.e., “the right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations…in common with all citizens of the Territory”. In other words, tribes were allowed off-reservation fishing as well as hunting and shellfish gathering rights. In the words of Isaac Stevens, superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1854, fishing rights were guaranteed “… as long as the sun shines, as long as the mountains stand, and as long as the rivers run.” (Hefferman, 2012)
In the 1890’s salmon and steelhead became a valued commodity for Whites, and over time, fish populations dwindled due to massive increase in White commercial and sport fishing, as well as from fish habitat damage due to hydroelectric dams and pollution from deforestation and development. In an effort to conserve the resource, the State of Washington began to enforce restrictions on Native fishermen despite the treaty language. State officials interpreted “usual and accustomed grounds” as meaning fishing only on Indian reservations, and tribes were denied access to any off-reservation fishing sites, the prime locations for harvesting fish. Native Americans suffered from poverty and starvation without a means to provide food for their families.
The Dawes Act of 1887 forced the breakup of reservations by creating small allotments for individual families in a tribe. The Nisqually, like many other tribes in Washington State, lost land, inter-tribal control and became impoverished since few became farmers as the federal government had expected. Adding insult to injury, during World War I the U.S. government assumed the Nisqually’s reservation land for a new military base, and the tribe had to abandon burial grounds, ancestral homes and land and were moved across the river. Frank’s Landing is the six-acre riverside parcel that Billy Frank, Sr. purchased after the Nisqually Tribe was displacement from their reservation.
By the 1950’s state enforcement officials openly ignored the treaties, violently harassed tribal fishermen and made numerous arrests as well as confiscated boats and fishing equipment on and off reservation. Over the years Mr. Frank himself was arrested 50 times for exercising his treaty rights to fish. In 1974 a federal court case, known as the (Judge) Boldt Decision, re-affirmed the tribes’ rights to harvest salmon and steelhead and established them as co-managers of Washington fisheries. Eventually Mr. Frank became chairman of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (NWIFC), an organization that provides support to 20 treaty tribes in Western Washington, and he served for 30 years.
Mr. Frank was front and center in what has become known as the Great Fish War of the Northwest which came to a head in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many of the ‘battles’ were fought at Franks’ Landing. To highlight fishing rights that were granted by treaties from the 1850’s, he organized ‘fish-ins’ with family members and local tribes – setting nets and harvesting fish in plain view of government officials. He said, “As the salmon disappear, so do our tribal cultures and treaty rights.” (Salmon Defense, 2013)
Racism and discrimination are fundamental to understanding Mr. Frank’s lived experience as a Native American and how extraordinary are his achievements. Mr. Frank was given numerous awards for his fight for treaty rights and environmental stewardship including the Common Cause Award for Human Rights Efforts, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism and the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2015. The 114th U.S. Congress passed The Billy Frank Jr. Tell Your Story Act of 2015 which designates the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge as the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, and establishes the Medicine Creek Treaty National Memorial within the refuge. This paper will focus on the Fish War years from the perspective of Mr. Frank.
Mr. Frank died in 2014. So, to gather a first-person narrative, I leaned on books, documentaries, news articles, and interviews. The fish-ins of the 1960’s and 1970’s were well documented. Much of the first person narrative I was able to glean came from a biography of Mr. Frank, Where the Salmon Run: The Life and Legacy of Billy Frank. (Hefferman, 2012) The book details the lives of his family, his early life and upbringing.
There was a lot of publicity surrounding the fish-ins especially when the NAACP, the ACLU and celebrities like Marlin Brando and Dick Gregory became involved in the protests. One of the best historical sources is a documentary by Carol Burns, As Long as the Rivers Run. (Burns, 1971) It was produced in association with Survival of American Indians Association (SAIA) and includes footage from 1968-1970. It features the Billy Frank, Sr. and Jr. and their families, Franks Landing, and protests at the Washington State Capitol and the Thurston County Jail in Olympia, Washington.
Another source that has been indispensable for researching Mr. Frank has been the organization that he co-founded, Salmon Defense. They provide a companion documentary to the Carol Burns film called Back to the River. (Salmon Defense, 2013) It fills in some of the history of the struggle of treaty rights from the pre-Boldt era to the co-management era of today. The people interviewed experienced the open aggression and violent harassment by the State of Washington, many were themselves arrested, beaten and jailed. There were powerful accounts of the wives and mothers who were left to fend for their children after the men were jailed as well as children recounting visiting their fathers in jail. They told the story of the events that triggered the Unites States vs. Washington lawsuit and the aftermath. In the film Charles Wilkinson, author of Messages From Frank’s Landing, states, “On February 12th, 1974, Boldt intentionally chose Lincoln’s birthday as a statement of this opinion which by any reasonable standard is one of the great moments in American law. Judge Boldt handed down a decision that the tribes can be proud of, but every American should be proud of. Because it honored a sacred promise and it allowed dispossessed peoples, the least among us at that time, to have their most sacred rights protected.” (Salmon Defense, 2013)
Other resources include a research paper from Gabriel Chrisman, “If anyone lays a hand on that net they are going to get shot.” Uncompromising Activism: The Fish-In Protests at Frank’s Landing”. (Chrisman, 2008) Here I learned a lot about the history around the drafting and signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty and many of the cruel ways the U.S. government privileged White settlers to displace Indigenous peoples as well as the cruel and inconsistent policies and practices by the State of Washington and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. In a search on the Dawes Act, I found historian Mary Klann’s teaching blog (Klann, 2020) and learned how this effort to reassign reservation lands into allotments was essentially a dehumanizing race law with devastating impacts on Native American communities.
“The Indian was a child, and a dangerous child, of nature, to be both protected and restrained…Neither Rome nor sagacious Britain ever dealt more liberally with their subject races than we with these savage tribes, whom it was generally tempting and always easy to destroy and whom we have so often permitted to squander vast areas of fertile land before our eyes.” Washington State Supreme Court Justice Frederick Bausman in 1916 (Municipal Research and Services Center, n.d.)
From Frank’s Landing, Billy Frank, Sr., watched salmon become depleted during his life and saw Whites come to harass and blame Native Americans for the loss, eventually confining them to fishing in designated areas. Confinement of Native Americans has been a constant throughout the settlement of the West. “The underlying assumption of all of these treaties was that Native Americans were not making proper use of the land, according to the standards of White settlers, and thus needed to be settled on designated reservations to take up farming, assimilating into the general American population in the course of a generation or two.” (Chrisman, 2008)
The public viewed Native Americans as backward, a nuisance, a hindrance to progress and in Washington were defiant of new fish conservation policies that were intended for the public good. The powerful Washington State Sportsmen Council pressured the State to ‘contain’ the Indian threat to fish populations and actively propagated racist memes and encouraged discrimination against Native Americans. The Sportsmen Council denounced the fish-ins as uprisings promoted by “hippies, yippies and renegade Indians” (Chrisman, 2008) and coopted an old racist theme of “dominance and assimilation” described by Irving (2014) “that elevates those who can fit the prescribed mold while excluding and destabilizing those who can’t.” Washington State officials, Sportsmen and the media worked to drive a wedge within tribes by implying there were ‘good’ Indians and ‘bad’ Indians. ‘Good’ Indians were those gainfully employed and supporting their families in trades other than fishing. (Chrisman, 2008)
These memes added to the dominant culture’s typical narrative of Indigenous people. Indians were drunks, dangerous, lazy, violent and lacking self-control. Indians, like Mr. Frank who “…were fighting for their families’ survival, for land, and for a way of life being stolen from them” (Irving, 2014) were a band of outlaws and renegades. Whites consider themselves the superior race, and at the same time, victims of the lawless and primitive Indian skulking around in the dead of night poaching fish.
Along the Nisqually River Mr. Frank grew up a to be fisherman, like his ancestors. “The salmon is an important part of us—who we are.” He learned about salmon and the River. “I always tell my kids, ‘If a salmon gets away from you, don’t cuss. Don’t say anything. That salmon, he’s going up the river. He’s producing more salmon for you and all of us. The salmon—he’s coming home. And we’ve got to take care of his home. He journeys out there for six, seven years clear to the Arctic Ocean and then he comes back clear to the Nisqually River.” Billy Frank, Sr. chaired Nisqually Tribe Council and took his son with him wherever he went. Mr. Frank’s father rejected whites’ religion and entire system of values and taught his son the creation story. “Dad said the Catholic Church was full of B.S…They tried to make him pray all the time [in boarding school]…The Creator is the one who brought us here…Creator gave us everything we have…The Creator put that salmon there for us to survive.” (Hefferman, 2012)
He was 14 when Mr. Frank’s was physically restrained by game wardens and taken to jail for the first time for fishing at Frank’s Landing. “I fished in the daylight and they start taking my nets…When they started arresting us, I’d go set my net at nighttime. I never used a motor. I’d pull my canoe. I’d go up there like four in the morning and pick [the fish up] and come home.” (Hefferman, 2012) With a ninth grade education, Mr. Frank served two years in the Marine Corp, married and had children. He struggled with and overcame alcoholism.
Mr. Frank saw the pattern of discrimination and cruelty in real time. “I thought nobody protects us Indians…The state of Washington, they protect their sportsmen, their commercial fishermen and everybody. But nobody protects us Indians, not even our tribe. They weren’t capable of the infrastructure to take care of us, take care of us in the political sense of legal and policy and technical. We never had no technical people. We never had no science people on the river. We had nothing. And I always thought, Jesus, we need somebody to be out there shaking their fist and saying, “Hey, we live here!” (Hefferman, 2012) After his arrests and arriving in court without a lawyer, his sole defense was that he had a right to fish according to the treaties. Native fisherman were accused of decimating fish populations, but in reality they were taking less than five percent. Even catching five percent required them to “go underground”. “To survive, to continue our culture, we had to become an underground society.” (Tizon, 1999)
“We were getting raided, and then finally they were beating on all of us, up and down the river.” (Hefferman, 2018) The State game wardens used tear gas, Billy clubs and guns on the fishers and surveilled them with planes, speed boats and radio communications. (Tizon, 1999) They fought back with stones and fists. “Everybody [else] was catching our fish. When they got to the Nisqually River, they’d close us down for conservation. The state of Washington would do that. They intercepted salmon as the migrations come home. By the time it got to the Nisqually River, there was no salmon left to catch. We said, ‘The hell with them!’ We started fighting to get our salmon back.” (Hefferman, 2012)
Mr. Frank was one of the founders of SAIA along with other members of the Nisqually and neighboring tribal communities. They rejected cultural assimilation and made the defense of Indian treaty rights their primary goal. The fish-ins they organized were the civil rights protests of the West – well-planned and publicized off-reservation fishing, designed to provoke arrests so that tribal people could be heard in court. He said of his role in SAIA, “I wasn’t a policy guy. I was a getting-arrested guy.” (Tizer, 1999) “We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any expensive attorneys. We didn’t have any infrastructure to work with the state . . . or the federal government or the neighbors of anybody or the utilities that put the dams on the river.” (Hefferman, 2012)
In 1970, a United States Attorney who was present at one of the raids on Frank’s Landing and was himself teargassed by the wardens, filed an action in the U.S. District Court on behalf of many the tribes fighting for fishing rights which later became the landmark Boldt case related to the struggle for treaty rights in Washington State and beyond. The Defendants of Unites States vs. Washington were the State of Washington, the Washington Department of Fisheries, the Washington Game Commission, and the Washington Reef Net Owners Association. In court Mr. Frank testified that the state had confiscated his fishing gear, boats and motors for years. Other tribal members testified about how the health of the entire watershed, habitat and stream flow were connected to the endangered salmon and steel head populations.
Judge Boldt’s decision affirmed that restrictive laws against treaty tribes to fish in their usual and accustomed places were unlawful and that it was the State’s role to preserve fish runs, not the tribes’ share. “No one, White or Indian, could ruin the fishery.” (Hefferman, 2012) Boldt placed a new regulatory structure in the co-equal hands of the tribes and the State and guaranteed the federally recognized tribes 50 percent of the harvestable catch. “We’ll get the money for the infrastructure of what we’re doing, the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, to coordinate all of this… Oh god. It was just great.” (Hefferman, 2012)
“What if I could have learned how one person’s windfall can be another person’s downfall?” (Irving, 2014)
I used to teach the Woody Guthrie song, This Land is Your Land, to every child that passed through the doors of my music room. To me, the song was the quintessential democratic song, an alternate National anthem, a narrative of equality and inclusion. That was until I attended a state Democratic Party convention a few years ago.
At the opening of the convention after the Indigenous land acknowledgment, we all watched a welcome video with images of the diverse people of the Washington State to an upbeat soundtrack – a performance of This Land in Your Land. After it was over, I felt great and ready to begin work with my fellow democrats. What I was about to learn was how the Native American’s in the room felt when hearing that song and seeing their own images among the collage of peoples of our State. To them, Woody Guthrie’s song is colonialist, the lyrics tone-deaf to the erasure of Indigenous people and the stealing of their land. I learned the counter story; a critical perspective how Native Americans experience the song This Land is Your Land.
Mr. Frank implores us to understand the critical perspective of indigenous peoples – and he would add, the salmon’s – experience living in western Washington. Mr. Frank’s life story – his work as an environmental steward and his insistence that the United States live up to its stated ideals as a nation of laws – runs counter to the narratives told by U.S. government, Washington State officials and the Whites who came to settle in the west. “I live here! I fish here!” were Mr. Franks words, insisting to be acknowledged, respected, and validated as any other resident in the State – not erased or pushed away. At the very least, he expected that whites honor their word and the treaties that the Indigenous leaders signed in good faith. We learn from Mr. Frank that the parcels of land granted to White settlers were stolen from the Nisqually and other Indigenous peoples who were deceived and coerced into relinquishing their ancestral land in hope of simply remaining alive.
An example of the narrative and counter narrative is the Termination Act of 1953 which unleashed deep anger in the tribal communities and Mr. Frank’s fury, too. Under the Act between 1953 and 1964, U.S. terminated recognition of more than 100 tribes, abolished those tribes’ federally recognized treaty status and removed from protected status 2,500,000 acres of indigenous land. The White dominant narrative of the intent of this policy was to be a continuation of the effort to assimilate Native Americans and make them subject to laws and state and federal taxes. To Mr. Frank, terminations were designed to erase indigenous people and make them White (Hefferman, 2012) – “a critical perspective that reveals and explains the impact of race”. (Singleton, 2015, p. 118)
Challenge to the Dominant Ideology
The dominate narrative is that Whites are the superior race, capable, intelligent, worthy of assuming social, political and institutional domination. In the case of the dramatic loss of fish populations in the west at the hands of White settlers and the leadership of the Washington State government, one only needs to take the story to its logical conclusion. Today Pacific Northwest sockeye salmon, Coho salmon, and chinook salmon are endangered. Coho salmon in the lower Columbia River are effectively extinct. It is White culture that has brought this about – unchecked overfishing, habitat destruction, development, pollution, and a punishing series of dams from the mouth of each western Washington river all the way up their watersheds to spawning grounds. Whites have laws, science, data, infrastructure and money, and still, we are on the verge of losing these keystone species which are the ecological glue to marine and terrestrial ecosystems from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Plains. In the absence of Billy Frank, the Nisqually people, and the whole of the indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest who hold deep knowledge of the natural history of salmon, one can only conclude that they would already be gone.
“Billy was often asked, How do you do this? How do you effectively advocate on behalf of clean water and salmon–as he did–over so many decades? Billy always had the same answer. He would say, “Tell your story. Tell your story.” (Heck, 2015)
Mr. Frank’s story is powerful, and it is also about power sharing. After the Boldt decision gave Native American co-equal power in management of the fisheries, the State of Washington had to go through a period of adjustment to learn how to work with their new colleagues who finally had a seat at the table and learn to validate traditional Native knowledge of fish and fisheries management. “It’s hard to imagine something you don’t experience firsthand, especially when it is so counter to your own experiences.” (Irving, 2014)
The fact that it is hard for the State of Washington and Sportsmen’s Council to recognize and respect Indigenous peoples’ deep knowledge of fish and habitat is no excuse, and they must work to confront this fundamentally racist attitude. “As a North American culture, we often recognize embrace and promote people of color and indigenous people whose racial ideology is aligned with more conservative White ideologies.” (Singleton, 2015, p. 119) During the height of the Fish War the Sportsmen Council actively tried to drive a wedge in the tribal communities by spreading a ‘good’ Indians (those that abided by the State’s restrictive fishing policies) vs. ‘bad’ Indians narrative. It is critical for the survival of salmon and whole ecosystems that Whites in power learn to step back, promote Native Americans in decision making and integrate their expertise. Though change may be slow, there is progress as fish begin to return to the rivers. “Now the tribes are finally being acknowledged as comanagers of the fisheries resources. I had a lot of sports fishermen come directly up to me. And they put out their hand and they said, ‘Would you please tell the Yakama Nation thank you? Because we know if it wasn’t for their tribe, there’d still be no fish in that river.'” Carol Craig, Yakama Tribe (Smithsonian, 2018)
One of the most crucial elements of Mr. Frank’s story that is not well known is the fact that not all of the Nisqually Tribe agreed with his activism and the SAIA-led protests at the beginning. Many tribal members themselves called Mr. Frank a renegade. In the early days of the fish-ins the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians preferred compromise and negotiation and were leery of further damage to their public image. (Chrisman, 2008) This is a reminder that Native Americans are not an ideological monolith.
Finally, not all tribes in the Pacific Northwest tribes are federally recognized. And the Boldt decision actually exacerbated their lack of access to fisheries. Non-treaty tribes in Washington such as the Duwamish, Chinook, and Snohomish, lost access to all of their usual and accustomed fishing sites because the Boldt Decision only applies to tribal nations recognized by the federal government. There are still tensions over fishing rights that need to be resolved. To this conundrum, Mr. Frank might say to those tribes, “Continue to ‘Tell Your Story’”. Singleton (2015) would say to us all, listen to the stories, and “allow people of color and indigenous people the same variation in their views that they allow among White people.”
Mr. Frank’s life story teaches us that all voices and perspectives are critical. We need all peoples sitting equally at the table working together to solve the many challenging problems before us.
Burns, C. (Director) (1971) As Long as the Rivers Run. (Film) Survival of American Indians Association. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvKgXV-_fF0
Chrisman, G. (2008) “If anyone lays a hand on that net they are going to get shot.” Uncompromising activism: the fish-in protests at Frank’s Landing. ResearchWorks. University of Washington. https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/bitstream/handle/1773/4506/Gabriel_Chrisman_Submission2.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Heck, D. (2015, May 14) The Billy Frank, Jr., Tell Your Story Act Floor Speech. Vote Smart. https://justfacts.votesmart.org/public-statement/974375/the-billy-frank-jr-tell-your-story-act
Hefferman, T. (2012) Where the salmon run: the life and legacy of Billy Frank, Jr. University of Washington Press.
Irving, D. (2014) Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. Elephant Room Press.
Klann, M. (2020, October 26) Week 4: Membership and Identity. Mary Klann, PhD. https://www.maryklann.com/hius-144-course-blog/2020/10/26/week-4-membership-and-identity
Municipal Research and Services Center. (n.d.) WA State Supreme/Appellate Court Decisions. http://courts.mrsc.org/washreports/089WashReport/089WashReport0478.htm
Salmon Defense. (2013) Back to the River. (Film) https://salmondefense.org/projects/educate/back-to-the-river/
Singleton, G. E. (2015). Courageous conversations about race: a field guide for achieving equity in schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, A SAGE Company.
Smithsonian. (2018) The fish wars: examine the evidence. National Museum of the American Indian. https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/pnw-fish-wars/justice.cshtml
Tizon, A. (1999, February 7) The Boldt decision / 25 years — the fish tale that changed history. The Seattle Times.https://archive.seattletimes.com/archive/?date=19990207&slug=2943039
Photo Attribution: “THIS IS INDIAN COUNTRY With Billy Frank Jr.” 5 December 2011, 08:51:26