They were known as the Fish Wars, and they pitted Indigenous Peoples’ treaty-mandated fishing rights against Washington State regulations that prohibited the harvesting of salmon off the reservation.
It was the 1960s, and police and state game wardens roughed up, arrested and cut the fishing nets of tribal members as they exercised their rights during “fish-ins” akin to the sit-ins of the civil rights movement. Today a good 80 people still have convictions on their records, according to The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington.
But that could soon change. A committee of the Washington State legislature heard testimony on Tuesday January 14 on legislation that would erase those convictions.
"We as a state have a very dark past, and we need to own up to our mistakes," said Representative David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, prime sponsor of House Bill 2080, to the Associated Press. "We made a mistake, and we should allow people to live their lives without these criminal charges on their record."
The testimony was given before the state House Community Development, Housing and Tribal Affairs Committee for a bill that would allow tribal members arrested before 1975 in relation to treaty rights to apply to have their misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony convictions overturned, the AP said. Sawyer introduced the bill because he had learned that the convictions were still impeding their lives—one tribal member could not cross the border into Canada because of his fishing-related felony, and another, a grandparent, could not adopt.
The Treaty of Medicine Creek, signed in 1854, was supposed to ensure that tribal members got to fish at all their traditional spots. The tribes granted 2.24 million acres of land to the U.S. and in return were promised cash payments over 20 years, plus the establishment of three reservations. However the treaties were never upheld, and tensions grew.
The issue came to a head in 1970, when police raided an encampment along the Puyallup River, lobbing tear gas and swinging clubs, and arrested 60 people, the AP said. In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt ruled on the amount of salmon and steelhead that Natives could take, and nixed the state’s restrictions on tribal fishermen in what is known as the Boldt Decision. The ruling held up in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979.
If passed, the bill would be a step in acknowledging the harm the Fish Wars caused, wrote columnist Peter Callaghan in The News Tribune.
"It's a start," said Nisqually Tribal Elder Billy Frank Jr., who has been arrested more times than he has bothered to count, to the AP.
“This is small. This doesn’t do the tribes justice,” Sawyer told Callaghan. “Very few things are more dear to the culture of a tribe as fishing. It is a huge part of their culture, and it’s something we stole from them.”