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Three silver fish underwater, viewed through glass.

Salmon pass through the Ballard Locks in Seattle, Washington.

Photo by Michael O’Regan

  • The Right to Salmon: “Fish-Ins” and a Tradition of Activism in the Pacific Northwest

    In 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Indigenous communities on the other side of the country were fighting for their own civil rights.

    Treaties between Pacific Northwest tribes and the federal government signed one hundred years before had guaranteed tribes the right to hunt, gather, and fish in all “usual and accustomed grounds” in exchange for land. By the mid-twentieth century, however, those promises had been largely abandoned.

    For decades, Pacific salmon—a vital cultural, spiritual, and economic resource for Indigenous People in the region—had been on a steady decline due to overfishing and habitat loss exacerbated by industry and the steady influx of settlers. The dire condition of salmon populations prompted the state of Washington to impose restrictions on fishing around the turn of the century. Aside from requiring fishing licenses, the state outlawed traditional methods of subsistence fishing like gillnetting and the use of weirs that catch large amounts of salmon at once.

    But tribal fisherpeople knew their treaty rights, even if they were in direct violation of state laws.

    Inspired by the sit-ins and civil disobediences orchestrated throughout the American South, tribes across the state began staging “fish-ins” in 1963 to reclaim their treaty right to salmon. Fish-ins organized by the Nisqually and Puyallup tribes just south of Seattle on the Puget Sound gained notoriety when ticketing and arrests began to occur on a regular basis. Before long, celebrities like Marlon Brando and Dick Gregory increased national attention on the fish-ins after they were arrested for joining the demonstrations.

    Away from the spotlight, the same story was playing out in places like the Skagit River at the north end of the Puget Sound.

    “We didn’t have any celebrities here with us because the Skagit is somewhat out of sight, out of mind,” says Scott Schuyler, an elder and fisherman from the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “We like people to know that the exact same thing was going on here on the Skagit. Our ancestors were being arrested in the ’50s and ’60s and early ’70s and thrown in jail and fined.”

    Today, the fish-ins on the Nisqually and Puyallup rivers are held up as a successful chapter of the civil rights movement. History remembers the names of Billy Frank Jr., Bob Satiacum, Allison Bridges, Don McCloud, Hank Adams, and other prominent activists who endured brutality from recreational fishermen and the state in order to defend their treaty rights. Billy Frank Jr., who died in 2014, was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Honor in 2018 for his leadership.

    But what stories get left out of the national memory of such movements? What of the people who couldn’t afford fines or jail time, and what other kinds of sacrifices did they make?

    Three people stand on the rocky edge of a short waterfall. Black-and-white photo with blurred edges.
    Upper Skagit tribal members Margaret Edwards, Ella Gus Tom, and Howard Tom at Cascade Falls—a fishing site destroyed by the cedar-shingle industry.
    Photo courtesy of Scott Schuyler

    The state of Washington’s decision to outlaw gillnetting had deep repercussions on the Skagit River.

    “They made it illegal for tribal folks to practice our way of life we had been practicing here on the Skagit for the last 10,000 years,” Schuyler points out. “That was a huge hit for our members. Not only because, economically, you didn’t have the salmon, but you lost that component of your culture as well. Many of our tribal members were forced to try to find a living elsewhere. My relatives, as an example, moved into farming as an alternative way to support themselves, feed their families, and be able to just survive.”

    It wasn’t only salmon fishing that tribes were prohibited from: in the eyes of Washington state, Indigenous folks hunting game, digging for clams, and gathering traditional foods off-reservation were considered poachers. Although Schuyler was young in those years, he remembers state enforcement against tribal people vividly.

    “Whenever we would hear these huge jet boats, it would always instill that fear in you,”  he says. “They probably weren’t as big as they are in my memory now. But to us, there were these huge V8-powered jet boats that were run by the Department of Game. Their goal was to go out and harass us and ram boats and stuff like that. And that went on for many, many years.”

    Despite the attention to treaty rights that the fish-ins drew, it took another decade and many more, often violent arrests (Billy Frank Jr. was arrested at least fifty times) before the federal government stepped in and sued Washington state on behalf of tribes.

    The landmark 1974 decision in United States v. State of Washington—known colloquially as the Boldt Decision after district judge George Hugo Boldt—not only reaffirmed tribes’ right to fish in customary places, but granted them half of the harvestable salmon in a given fishery.

    In the Upper Skagit’s case, many tribal members who were displaced by state fishing laws were able to return to the Skagit River to practice their historical trade again.

    “It was life changing for me because I got to fish with my family,” Schuyler recalls. “From that moment, that first time I went fishing, I knew this was going to be my life. I was very fortunate that my uncle let me fish his boat for him. I learned to navigate the river up and down, day and night, and learned the hard way by doing things wrong. I went through a lot of propellers at the time,” he says, laughing.

    Two men in fishing waders and rubber gloves. One stands on the end of a metal boat, looking away, and one looks and speaks directly toward the camera. In the background, a wide river lined with trees and a red pickup truck parked at the edge of the water.
    Upper Skagit elders Scott Schuyler and Larry Peters fish for pink salmon on the Skagit River.
    Photo by Kyle Baker

    Generations of Indigenous fisherpeople were reacquainted with their salmon culture after the Boldt Decision was handed down, but the effects of the ruling are still playing out in Washington state today. Tribal gillnetting, though the law of the land for almost fifty years, remains a divisive issue on the Skagit and other rivers. Tribal police routinely accompany Upper Skagit fisherpeople to deter the ongoing threat of violence and intimidation they face from non-Native fishermen and those who do not understand the tribe’s reserved treaty rights. Additionally, the Boldt Decision recognized all treaty tribes in the state as managers of their natural resources. The Upper Skagit, Sauk-Suiattle, and Swinomish tribes became co-managers of the Skagit River fisheries resource—a role that comes with its own set of modern challenges.

    “We live in an era where we don’t have a lot of habitat anymore,” Schuyler says. “We don’t have a lot of returning salmon anymore. The runs are at risk. We’re back to what I call survival mode, just like we were pre-Boldt.”

    The Skagit, in fact, is the last river in the lower forty-eight where all five species of Pacific salmon—Chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, and pink—still run. But dangerously low return rates limit local tribes’ ability to fully practice their fishing culture.

    “My grandkids and my kids have never participated in a wild spring Chinook fishery or a chum fishery,” Schuyler continues. “They’ve not had their hands on one of these fish, have not been able to partake in eating one of these fish. And that’s a legacy that’s concerning.”

    As a co-manager of the fishery, the Upper Skagit are also central players in an ongoing federal relicensing of three dams on the river. The Gorge, Diablo, and Ross dams send electricity to the city of Seattle a hundred miles away but, without fish-passage systems, are detrimental to the health of Skagit River salmon. Tribes, along with state, local, and federal agencies, are advocating tirelessly for Seattle to implement fish passage in the current relicensing period.

    Schuyler finds a common thread through all of these issues—from the fish-ins of the pre-Boldt years to the modern fight against habitat destruction and climate change.

    “People always ask us why we continue to fish. The answer is simple for us: because we have to make these treaties valid. If we’re not fishing, there’s nothing in exchange for this loss. And this loss has been going on since the treaty signing in 1855. So, it never comes easy. It takes a commitment, and it takes the person that’s willing to stand up and say something and affect change.”

    Perhaps it’s from within this intergenerational commitment to defend treaty rights that a tradition of activism emerges in the Pacific Northwest. For Schuyler, protecting salmon on the Skagit River is a tradition that not only goes back many generations to his relative Pateus, who signed the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, but one he passes down to his children. 

    “I’m very proud of my daughter, Janelle—Hout-Suli-A is her name. One of the things I tried to teach her from an early age is that we’re all on this earth for a blink of an eye and to use it wisely. Affect change if you can.”

    After organizing a Black Lives Matter demonstration in 2020, Janelle Schuyler penned a letter to the mayor of Seattle urging her to support fish passage for Skagit River dams. She then started a popular petition that received nearly 50,000 signatures to remove the Gorge Dam entirely. “I’m really proud of her that she’s taken that lesson to heart,” Schuyler says of his daughter.

    If the fight to uphold treaty promises during the fish-ins of the 1960s was about securing tribal people’s right to fish for salmon, it is today about helping salmon themselves survive. In the face of that challenge, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and Indigenous communities throughout the Pacific Northwest hold firm to their fishing culture—however they can.

    “I may be old, but I’m still trying to fish,” Schuyler concludes. “I don’t want to call myself a good fisherman anymore because everything hurts nowadays. But I still fish. And it’s been my lifelong goal to teach my kids what I know. Hopefully they’ll pass that on to their kids, but more importantly, just have the opportunity to do so.”

    Kyle Baker is a documentary filmmaker and former intern and contractor at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who witnessed his first salmon run on the Skagit River. He observes World Fish Migration Day every May, despite recently learning that the holiday only occurs on even years. 

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