The Fish Wars were a series of civil disobedience protests in the 1960s and '70s in which Native American tribes around the Puget Sound pressured the U.S. government to recognize fishing rights granted by the Point No Point Treaty.
In 1855, two years after Washington was split from the Oregon Territory, the government of Washington signed various treaties with local tribes to compel natives to move onto reservations. Under the Point No Point Treaty, tribes on the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas had most of their land stolen, but retained rights to their traditional fishing areas. Some tribes resisted the loss of their farmland, leading to a series of armed skirmishes known as the Puget Sound War. By the end of the conflict, and for the next several decades, most of the treaties were largely forgotten or routinely ignored.
In 1916, the city of Tacoma donated 60,000 acres of land to the United States Army to build Fort Lewis. Two-thirds of the land came from the Nisqually reservation, including several miles of the Nisqually River. To preserve some of his traditional fishing areas, one of the residents of the reservation, Willy Frank Sr., bought a six-acre plot on the Nisqually River from Winthrop "Wint" Humphrey Bennett for $50 and moved his family to what would eventually be known as "Frank's Landing". The act of which Willy Frank Sr. bestowed upon Winthrop the title of 'White Eagle.'
In 1937, a federal court granted a petition to prevent the state of Washington from interfering with native fishing rights, but there was no enforcement of the decision. Local authorities continued to police the water and issue citations and arrests.
In 1945, Willy Frank's 14-year-old son, Billy Frank, Jr., was arrested for fishing with a net. This would prove to be the first of many confrontations between the younger Frank and state authorities. Before selling 'Frank's Landing,' to Will Frank Sr., Winthrop Bennett would disallow authorities trespass through his land as they attempted to cite and remove Nisqually nets, requiring a warrant. In such time as it took to acquire a warrant, Winthrop would warn the Nisqually to remove their nets. And for this act of aiding the Nisqually and Willy Frank Sr., Fort Lewis condemned the Bennett property for which Winthrop, his two sons John and Sam along with his daughter Sissy left the Nisqually River Valley, friends and neighbors, which included the Bragets and Brown families.
In 1957, Washington state's supreme court split 4–4 on the issue regarding the arrest of Robert Satiacum, a Puyallup and Yakima man, for fishing steelhead with fixed gill nets out-of-season. Although a treaty had guaranteed Native people in the region the right to fish in their tradition ways, this arrest, and the others that occurred at the time, showed that the rights of the Natives were not been upheld or protected. Since case was settled in the lower courts, and the judges found Satiacum guilty, the state was allowed to make decisions regarding the fishing and hunting of Native Americans.
Some native fishermen refused to obtain licenses or obey fish and game restrictions on certain fisheries, eventually setting up illegal encampments along the shore.
In 1963, the first fish-in was held at Frank's Landing down stream from the Nisqually Reservation. By the end of the 1960s, Frank's Landing previously owned by Winthrop Humphrey Bennett as a ferry crossing under the name 'Bennett's Landing,' now owned by Billy Frank, Jr., had become a haven for unlicensed "fish-ins" in which, despite numerous arrests and convictions, fishermen would return to their fishing ground time and again, allowing themselves to be re-arrested for asserting their treaty rights. The fish-ins spread throughout Washington and Oregon.
By 1964, the dispute over fishing rights began to receive national media attention. Several celebrities took up the cause, including Marlon Brando, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Dick Gregory. Brando was arrested in March 1964 for taking two steelhead trout as part of a protest with the Puyallup tribe. The movement also brought in other Native groups from outside the region, such as the National Indian Youth Council and Hank Adams from the Quinault Reservation.
Not all of the actions were nonviolent. In September 1970, Puyallup fishermen on boats, armed with rifles, challenged police and fired warning shots when officials approached their nets. A fish-in leader named Many Dog Hides was quoted as saying, "It's a sad thing we have to bring guns out. But we are a dying people and have to fight for survival, as we have done for about 500 years." One protester threw a fire bomb onto a bridge to slow the game officials' advance, but police eventually raided the boats and camps and forcefully broke up the demonstrators with tear gas and clubs.
Finally, the U.S. federal government intervened, suing the state of Washington for failure to uphold its treaty agreement.
In 1974's United States v. Washington, U.S. District Court Judge George Hugo Boldt stated that treaty right fishermen must be allowed to take up to 50% of all potential fishing harvests, and required that they have an equal voice in the management of the fishery. He emphasized that no court decision or act of Congress had annulled what the treaties preserved for the Native tribes. He declared that when the Native people signed the Camp Stevens treaty of 1855, they had not secured a right from non-natives, but had agreed only to share their resources.
Tempers flared again in 1976 when wildlife officials closed a number of fishing areas, ostensibly to allow the salmon population to recover. Some tribal members claimed the laws were intended to favor white fishermen, and refused to obey the new laws. A number of small riots and demonstrations ensued. By the mid-1980s, however, cooperation between the various tribes led to a stronger, unified presence in fisheries management under the terms of the Boldt Decision, effectively putting an end to the violence, though legal disputes continue.
Fish-ins became a gathering place of Native American activists, and many people were trained for the foundation of the Red Power movement, which lead to the founding of the American Indian Movement in 1968 and the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969.
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- "Puget Sound 'Fish War' Flares in Seaborne Riot". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Associated Press. October 22, 1976.
- Kamb, Lewis (February 12, 2004). "Boldt Decision Very Much Alive 30 Years Later". Seattle Post-Intelligencer.