In 1994, United States District Judge Edward Rafeedie made a historic ruling: Members of the Skokomish Indian Tribe are entitled to harvest half of the shellfish on cultivated beaches around Puget Sound and Hood Canal, including those on private beaches.
He based his decision on a series of hunting and fishing treaties signed by the US government and 20 tribes who lived on the Salish Sea and the Columbia River between 1854 and 1856. The resulting treaty rights became the foundation of modern life for the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. As the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission puts it, under these treaties, “The United States recognized tribes as sovereign nations and the rightful owners of the land.” But 165 years later, and more than two decades after Rafeedie’s ruling, Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest are still struggling to exercise their rights.
“We live under the shadow of ongoing and continuous threats as sovereign nations,” Joseph Pavel, the director of Natural Resources for the Skokomish Tribe, tells me. “We’ll be out there [harvesting] and a neighbor will come out armed and start hollering.” The threats are so serious that Pavels says tribal members will not harvest shellfish on private beaches at night, when the tides are out, for fear of being harassed.
“There are individuals that are actively contacting some of these waterfront owners and offering to harvest the [shellfish] ‘before the goddamn Indians get them,’” Pavel says.
Tribal members don’t need the permission of private citizens to harvest clams and oysters according to the treaties and 1997 ruling, but they prefer their cooperation — such a relationship often proves mutually beneficial between tribal members and the non-Indigenous community, which can share the abundant shellfish. Those “carpetbaggers,” as Pavel refers to them, “harvest everything they can get off a beach.”
“We don’t do that. We make sure that we leave a standing stock,” Pavel says. In other words, the tribal harvesters are not in the business of depleting a natural resource so thoroughly that it becomes inaccessible to the people who depend on it.
Attacks on Indigenous fishermen are disturbingly commonplace in the Pacific Northwest. Willie Frank, a Nisqually tribal council member, is Billy Frank’s son, the legendary Nisqually fishing rights activist who was arrested 50 times during the height of a series of protests demanding that the federal government recognize treaty rights, known as the Fish Wars. He’s been fishing on six acres along the Nisqually River known as Frank’s Landing since he was a teenager.
“We still deal with a lot of racism on the Nisqually when we’re fishing,” he tells me. “Over the years, our net has been pulled in, it’s been cut, fish have been taken out of there by non-Native folks. There are people out there who don’t believe tribes should have the right to use our [traditional] net.”
Frank speculates that the aggression stems from the misapprehension that their nets catch all the fish before the sport fishermen can get to them (one of his goals is to have a five-minute video on the history of Indigenous fishing methods that fisherman watch before they can acquire a permit). Regardless, harassment that prevents Indigenous people from fishing is a direct violation of their rights, and it can have a disastrous impact on their well being. For many tribes, protecting and maintaining treaty rights is a main pillar of their mission as sovereign nations — and skeptical, and sometimes outright racist, citizens are far from the only threat to tribal treaty fishing rights that Indigenous fisherpeople face.
Indigenous people are environmental stewards.
Indigenous people have long been positioned as forceful and determined environmental advocates: During demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Indigenous protesters and residents of the Standing Rock reservation became known as water protectors. Indigenous people are also leaders in the seed saving movement, an effort to restore pre-contact agricultural practices and promote biodiversity.
In 1974, the Boldt Decision solidified this role. The ruling allocated 50 percent of the annual catch to treaty tribes and ordained the tribes as resource co-managers, alongside the state, tasked with protecting the wildlife and its natural habitat so that it endures for future generations (the 1994 Rafeedie Decision built on Boldt’s ruling by clarifying that tribes could harvest in the “usual and accustomed places, except those … that were specifically set aside for non-Indian shellfish cultivation purposes,” which would allow them to access private beaches). Today, the Skokomish tribe alone runs water quality monitoring, habitat and watershed restoration, and fisheries management programs. Most tribes in the region are engaged in the same projects; for instance, the Nisqually Tribe’s salmon recovery program operates the Clear Creek Hatchery, which Willie Frank credits with replenishing the Nisqually River with Chinook salmon.
“We protect 80 miles of lands from Mount Rainier to the mouth of the Nisqually river,” Frank says. “We always try to buy property up and down the Nisqually River. We don’t want big housing developments going in there. We don’t want businesses or anybody else trying to buy the land that’s going to fight with the tribe about clean water and protecting the water.”
The changes to the environment and wildlife caused by industrialization and the resulting effects of climate change are frighteningly clear. According to the EPA, around 485,000 Chinook salmon were reported to be in the Salish Sea in 2010, a 60 percent reduction in Chinook abundance since 1984.
Tyson Hawk Oreiro, the executive advisor for tribal affairs at the Washington State Department of Ecology and a member of the Lummi tribe, has been a commercial fisherman for 18 years, and his parents both fished in the Salish Sea before him. In his lifetime, he recalls fishermen pulling in boatloads of sockeye salmon, or walking 10 feet into the water to catch crabs, whereas today he has to go out at least 250 feet. Today, he says that most families “struggle just to find enough [fish] to make a living and feed their families.” That’s why it’s so urgent to restore the habitat, revitalize salmon runs, and operate flourishing hatcheries.
“So many communities in the Salish Sea are trying to stay committed, and stay positive. They’re pouring millions of dollars into efforts to replenish the salmon runs and counteract climate change,” says Oreiro. “We’re in the mitigation stage where we’re just trying to clean up what the generations before have done in regards to damage to the environment. It feels like the 11th hour in many cases. For the next generation of fishermen, we often think, is there going to be anything to catch? Is it going to be safe to eat?”
But to not fish at all would be equally “incomprehensible,” he says. Even with drastically depleted fish stocks, Indigenous people still have to fish, “because the act itself is a connection to our history and our traditions, [and] with the ancestral sense of who we are as a people.”
Oreiro says that salmon is “ingrained in the Indigenous culture of the coastal Salish people,” through their creation stories, which refer to salmon as the first source of nourishment put into the oceans for humans during the making of the world. Lower Elwha S’Klallam artist and storyteller Roger Fernandes captures the importance of salmon this way: “Salmon is the center of the world [and] has great power to us beyond just being a fish we catch and we eat.” Fish are so essential to the survival, livelihood, and spirituality of the Indigenous people of the Salish Sea and Columbia River basin that these tribes sometimes collectively refer to themselves as the “Salmon People.”
“For me, being on that river on Sundays, setting my net and exercising my treaty rights, it’s like going to church,” Frank says.
Treaty rights affirm what Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest have known, as the common saying goes, for “time immemorial”: That fish and people can coexist in a relationship that allows both humans and wildlife to not just survive but to flourish and prosper. For thousands of years, Indigenous people maintained this relationship without mass extinction events or endangered species. But it’s only possible because they treat nature with care and respect, recognizing that the relationship between people and the land can be mutually beneficial. Oreiro recalls a mantra his grandparents repeated to him over and over: “There should never be any reason that our people should starve if we maintain a good relationship with our environment.”
What happens if treaty rights are rescinded or the salmon disappears?
Any long-term disruption to treaty rights would be “traumatic,” according to Oreiro. “Treaties are the supreme law of the land. They supersede any policies that follow after those treaties were signed,” he says. “These treaty rights are not an acquired right of Indigenous people. They are an inherent right, that has been passed down by bloodlines, through the signatories of the treaties.”
Pacific Northwest tribes have kept their end of the treaty by exercising their rights while serving as co-managers of their resources. But they often face endless red tape and bureaucracy, not to mention dueling political perspectives, when they try to launch new environmental protection and restoration projects.
“Our biggest obstacle is inaction,” Oreiro says. “We’re still having arguments over whether or not climate change is real. That is definitely the biggest detriment to treaty rights.”
The current political climate also has Frank on edge. In 2018, the attorney general of Washington State challenged the Boldt Decision. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tribes, but with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Frank worries that these challenges will become more frequent, and without a sympathetic justice, there’s no guarantee that tribes will win those cases.
“Losing her is going to have an impact on our tribal sovereignty because I don’t know who the next person would be under Trump and the Republican senators,” he says. “The Trump administration has rolled back every water quality rule that the Obama administration set into place. Over the last four years, we’ve gone completely backwards.”
A confluence of factors make the threats to treaty rights especially dire right now: the Supreme Court might begin ruling in favor of challenges to treaty rights. A rise in white supremacist ideology could result in increased harassment against tribal fisherpeople. And surrounding all these issues like a black storm cloud is climate change, exacerbated by capitalism and industrialization, which will wipe out the salmon if political agendas continue to block meaningful action against it. All of these pieces combined endanger the Indigenous way of life, and the consequences of such an outcome would be apocalyptic.
Oreiro predicts an “all-out economic crash in Indigenous communities in Washington,” if treaty rights were to be revoked or the salmon become extinct — both seem possible at this point. “Thousands of families will have no way to make a living,” he continues. “And we would have a whole generation that will grow up never holding the sacred being from our creation stories.”
In order to combat such an outcome, Joseph Pavel recommends a total shift in the mindset of how non-Indigenous people perceive the purpose of the Earth’s natural resources, and how they interact with the environment.
“People need to recognize that they’re being asked to make a commitment or a sacrifice for their resources,” Pavel says. “This whole country was, from my perspective, built on the exploitation and extraction of resources, without any investment. We made an investment in the capital that our Creator gave us, and you exploited that. And at some point there’s going to be payback, so you need to take some of that wealth and put it back into the resources.”
In the meantime, the Indigenous people of this region will keep doing what they have been doing long before the treaties were signed: protect nature in return for the bounty it has offered to help them endure so much hardship.
“I don’t want to be the generation that catches the last fish, sitting in a museum one day, showing my grandkids, ‘This is what your grandpa and your great-grandpa used to catch in the river,’” Frank says. “So we have to be the voice of the salmon and the voice of the water.”