Puyallup Tribal News

Commemorating the Historic Fish Wars

//Tribal members and friends gather from far and near to remember, give thanks

Tribal Elder Betty James looks over displays of newspaper articles and photos that told of the chapters in the dramatic history of the Puyallup Tribe’s struggles to fish unimpeded in their home waters. (photo by clare jensen)

For many Puyallup Indians, their families and supporters, Sept. 9 was day of reflection and tears, laughter and fond memories, prayerful songs and powerful speakers. Filling the event tent to capacity at the Emerald Queen Casino’s I-5 location, Puyallup Tribal members mixed with friends of other tribes and non-Natives as well for this occasion, the 40th anniversary of the violent raid on the Puyallup Tribe’s riverbank encampment on the Puyallup River at the height of the historical Fish Wars.

It was on this date in 1970 that local and state law enforcement descended on the Tribe’s encampment, built there to defend tribal fishermen and treaty-guaranteed fishing rights, both of which had been thoroughly battered for decades. Forty years later this event remains sacred to Indian people of the Pacific Northwest and across the country – a time to honor the warriors – the veterans of the Fish Wars – those who have passed on and the Elders of the Fish Wars era still with the Tribe.

To open the memorial event, children from the Grandview Early Learning Center’s daycare gave a Welcoming Song. “This day has been a long time coming,” said Puyallup Tribal Council Chairman Herman Dillon afterward, as Connie McCloud, cultural coordinator for the Tribe, stepped up to the podium to give a moving and beautiful opening prayer.  

“There aren’t too many words to express this time,” she said, a day to express gratitude for “our people – our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles – who saw us through to this time to make this acknowledgement for the sacrifices our people have given.” She urged the youth in attendance to pay attention to who was there and what they were saying. “Listen to the stories and remember that our ancestors’ sacrifice is part of who we are.”

Students from Chief Leschi School then offered a Puyallup Paddle Song and sang a Love Song before Puyallup Tribal Councilmember Nancy Shippentower-Games took the mic as emcee. The Fish Wars go back to the 1940s and 50s, she said, when her people migrated with the salmon. She shared some of her most personal stories about her family’s part in the struggle.

“We grew up in a very active family. Talking about the Fish Wars is emotional for me because I witnessed what happened when I was a child.” She talked about seeing state game agents beating up her family members. “It was very traumatic growing up that way, but it gave us survival skills.”

She held up a mugshot of her dad taken when she was 8 years old; she remembered going to see him in jail but could only view him through a slot. “When I saw my dad I couldn’t stop crying. I went down the row to see all of them. All of these guys had children at home.” She said her dad told her mom not to bring her back, as it was too upsetting for his little girl.

Nancy Shippentower-Games said she is proud of how her mother and other women got together and fished while their husbands were in jail, reminding her Native people in the audience not to forget their example. “We need to remember these people, the things they sacrificed for you to have today.”

Nancy Shippentower-Games recalled the Nisqually fish camp and the focal point of activism that it became. When she was 12 years old, these fishermen and their families formed the Survival of the American Indian Association. The Nisqually encampment was raided by police a year later, 1965. She recalled a group of tribal fishermen called The Renegades “because no one wanted to own them,” referring to a controversial aspect of the Fish Wars – that of some tribal members employing civil disobedience in their efforts, which some other tribal members saw as counter-productive to getting the issues settled peacefully. The audience applauded for the last two living Renegades when Nancy Shippentower-Games asked them to stand up – Billy Frank, Jr. and Nugent Kautz.

She talked about actor/comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory and his brave hunger strike on behalf of her people. “He got arrested and almost died for our fishing rights.” During that time Nancy Shippentower-Games’s mother helped put up an encampment with teepees across from the Thurston County jail where Dick Gregory was being held. She said the state paid for his wife, Lillian, to come out and be with him, but when she refused to sign an agreement to force-feed him, a judge ordered his release.

“The fishing rights struggle has never stop-ped,” Nancy Shippentower-Games said, a fact echoed by Tribal Councilmember David Bean, who spoke of how conflicts over fishing continue out on the water. Just last year, he said, sports fishermen’s conduct on the Puyallup River, such as intentionally casting hooked lines around the tribal fishermen’s children, got the sports fishermen kicked off the river that season, for which the audience gave much applause.

The Fish Wars also continue today in the courtrooms, as told by longtime attorneys for the Puyallup Tribe, John Bell and Sam Stiltner, who between them have 50 years experience in fighting for Indian rights with the Puyallup Tribe. John Bell said there was another anniversary to mark that day, as September of 1970 was the month that U.S. vs. Washington was filed, a lawsuit concerning the Tribe’s fishing rights that continues to be argued in federal court. Sam Stiltner, a Puyallup tribal member, talked about another important case right now he called the “culverts case,” which concerns culverts blocking fish runs.

John Bell described some serious attacks the Tribe has faced in courts during the drawn-out Fish Wars. In 1960, a ruling handed down by Pierce County Superior Court stated that the Puyallup Tribe didn’t exist. Another ruling denied the existence of the Puyallup reservation. “There is no greater threat to a tribe” than rulings like these, he said.

“You have my admiration for all the struggles you fought,” he told the audience. “It is a great privilege for me to work with the Tribe and for that I thank you very much.”

Carol Burns, maker of the 1971 Puyallup/Nisqually fishing documentary “As Long As The Rivers Run,” spoke of how her experiences during the Fish Wars changed her life. Journalist and entertainer Gene Lewis talked about being at the helm of a news truck at the Puyallup encampment broadcasting live during the raid. He said he described the events taking place over gunfire and was so choked by tear gas that he couldn’t speak for a while. “That was a powerful day. I had no idea of the events to follow and the amazing history that unfolded on those banks. I am proud to have seen any part of it.”

Another powerful speaker was Tribal Elder Charlene Matheson, whose extended family includes some of the major players on the front lines of the Fish War. She called them and all those who fought on the front lines “absolute heroes… I am here because of who I came from, and I am humbled.”

Her dad Don Matheson was president of the Survival of the American Indian Association, and her mom was secretary. Meetings were held in their home. Charlene Matheson was a very little girl then. “I was invisible, but I heard everything…the anger, the passion, the determination to stay alive.”

She remembered fishermen joking in jail to keep their spirits up, and that of their terrified wives and children. She remembered the honorable attorneys who defended these fishermen, Arthur Knodel and Jack Tanner. She said she remembers hearing her mom saying to her dad, “It’s time to fight for our rights to the death.”

“She stunned us all with her bravery,” her daughter said.

The audience rose in great applause when Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Chairman Billy Frank, Jr. was introduced. Billy Frank, Jr. said that for American Indians, it is a lifetime struggle to defend what and who Indians are. “The job is not over yet.” Using himself as an example, he said he will be 80 years old this March “and I’m still managing the salmon on Puget Sound and the Pacific Coast.”

Billy Frank, Jr. looked back on his service in the U.S. military, to the time when he came home from wars overseas just to walk into a full-blown war at home. “They gassed us in Germany in World War I and 40 years ago they gassed us again.”

He remembered singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie and actor Marlon Brando coming to aid the Indians back in the day. Then the Boldt Decision was handed down – on the one hand a solution, on the other a call to action that persists into 2010. “We’re not done yet in implementing that decision.”

Other speakers followed – Herb Butler from Fairbanks, who was at the encampment when it was raided; Hank Adams, described as the choreographer of the Puyallup encampment; and former Puyallup Tribal Councilmember Ramona Bennett, who recalled the horrors of the raid. “None of us thought we would live through that day. We expected to die there when the pigs are pointing guns at you.”

Finally, Roberto Maestas, senior advisor and chair of historical resources at El Centro De La Raza, was last to speak about his time with the Puyallup Tribe during the 1970s. He summed up the day well when he said, “It is for the children that we work. They are the hope of the world.”

The day closed with Connie McCloud leading the Puyallup Canoe Family drummers and dancers in three songs, a Salmon Song by David Duenas, another Salmon Song sung by Mike Ward, a Puyallup Power Song and Puyallup Warrior Song.

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