A few weeks back, for only the second time in at least a generation, my Tribe celebrated a tradition called Return of the Salmon.
The Return of the Salmon ceremony celebrates the season’s first salmon catch. Every Tribe has its own take on the details, but the purpose is the same: to welcome the salmon back and thank them for all they provide for a Tribe’s people. If salmon are treated as welcome and revered guests, it is said that the season’s catch will be bountiful and the fish will return in abundance the following year.
At this year’s celebration, S’Klallam Princess Aletcia Ives took a ceremonial Chinook salmon in a woven cedar basket out by canoe to the mouth of Port Gamble Bay. There, the basket was placed as a gift and thank you to the salmon families who return to the Bay and Hood Canal every year.
Before the ceremony took to the waters of Port Gamble Bay, Ron Charles, who served for many years as Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe chairman, talked about the importance of treaty rights and the court decision that secured them for Washington tribes.
United States v. Washington — better known as the “Boldt Decision” — is a landmark 1974 case presided over by Judge George Hugo Boldt. It made Tribes “co-managers” of the state’s fisheries, entitling them to half of the harvestable salmon in traditional waters per treaties signed in the 1850s.
Prior to this decision, law enforcement and increasing numbers of non-Native fishermen were squeezing the rights of Tribes to fish and harvest shellfish. The State even tried to blame Tribes for declining salmon numbers. In reality, the State’s own figures during this period show that Tribal members caught less than 5 percent of the harvestable salmon in the region.
Billy Frank, a Nisqually Tribe member, experienced the injustice first-hand. As a boy of 14, in 1945, he was arrested while pulling up a net of chum salmon. He showed up in court, lawyer-less, but pointing to the treaties that were established, beginning in 1854, by Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens at the behest of the U.S. Government. While the treaties’ main purpose was to essentially remove Indians from their lands to make way for white settlers, they included a clause that read: “The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with citizens of the territory.”
As the years went by and arrests of Tribal members increased, Frank became an activist, organizing so-called “fish-ins.” Eventually, these protests — fishing in defiance of state laws — caught the eye of celebrities, such as Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda, who brought national attention to the increasing unrest. Former U.S. Congressman Lloyd Meeds of Everett once compared the issue on a social level to the civil rights battles being waged all over the country during the same period: “The fishing issue was to Washington state what busing was to the East. It was frightening, very, very emotional.”
By the time the federal government intervened on behalf of Washington’s Tribes in September 1970, tensions on both sides of the issue were high. The case was assigned to Judge Boldt, a conservative appointed by President Eisenhower. He worked on the case for more than three years, handing down the decision in 1974 that would allow our Tribal members to continue to live as their families and ancestors always had.
The treaties took our land but secured our fishing rights. While Indians were moved to reservations, pieces of our culture were quieted, but the Boldt decision, like the re-establishment of Return of the Salmon, proves that tradition cannot and will not be silenced.
— Jeromy Sullivan is chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. Contact him at email@example.com