Historically, the most important civil rights issue for Native Americans in Washington State has been fishing rights. In the 1960s Native Americans successfully defended these rights, which had been reserved for the tribes in a series of treaties with the United States between 1854 and 1855. Many well-known activist groups and concerned individuals joined the struggle, which featured the confrontational drama of the Native American "fish-in" protests. But the fish-ins are only part of the story. A unified and adept courtroom strategy provided by NAACP lawyers, the ACLU, and eventually the U.S. Department of Justice; the presence and assistance of members of numerous other organizations at the fish-ins and on associated protest marches; and, ultimately, the decisions of non-native judges and the influence of public opinion all proved crucial in upholding the rights of the tribes in Washington and bringing the issue of Native American treaty rights to the forefront of the civil rights movement.
While the courtroom battle has been meticulously described in books and articles, the fish-in protests themselves have received less attention and little has been written about the group that created and organized them: the Survival of the American Indian Society (SAIA). The southern Puget Sound fish-ins took shape in 1964 as civil rights protests coordinated by the newly formed SAIA with the critical assistance of other experienced organizations and individuals, including the NAACP and the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC). Indeed, certain elements of the SAIA protest campaign were consciously modeled on the actions of black civil rights protesters in the American South, while other aspects were creative modifications adapted to the unique situation. The NIYC, a Native American rights organization formed in 1961, contributed its rejection of cultural assimilation, which differed from the goals of the mainstream of the black civil rights movement. With their new methods of protest and advocacy of a strong and independent Native American culture, the NIYC elicited massive responses from the media, influential opposition groups, politicians, and government officials and was instrumental in altering general public opinion of Native Americans. For its part, the SAIA appropriated the public image of Native Americans that had arisen in the media, and turned elements of it to their own advantage. It also successfully worked to reframe previous history: arrests and incidents involving Native Americans that had taken place in the preceding decades were claimed as part of this civil rights campaign, creating a chain of ‘protests’ stretching back into the 1930s.
The overall results of the SAIA’s methods proved to be far more successful than any previous attempts to resolve the fishing rights question. The fish-ins led directly to the most important legal case in the Native American fishing debate in the past one hundred and twenty years, U.S. v. Washington. While it did not end the conflict, the 1974 ruling, known as the Boldt decision, represented a near-total vindication of the Native Americans’ treaty rights claims. This landmark case in the federal courts ruled that Native Americans were entitled to the opportunity to take up to 50 percent of the harvestable fish and that they should have equal part in the management of the fishing industry through a tribal fisheries commission. Native Americans' defense of their fishing rights did not go uncontested, however. In 1970 white sports fisherman began adopting the fish-in as a means of asserting their own "civil rights" against Native American fishermen. Ironically, this demonstrated the effectiveness of what had been accomplished in linking the SAIA’s variety of protest to the general civil rights movement.
When Washington Territory was established in 1853, the first priority of Isaac Stevens, who was both Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, was to secure the land and the cooperation of the local native tribes through treaties. In less than a year, Governor Stevens had the legal rights to over sixty four million acres of land, leaving the Native Americans less than 6 million acres broken up into reservations. The underlying assumption of all of these treaties was that Native Americans were not making proper use of the land, according to the standards of white settlers, and thus needed to be settled on designated reservations to take up farming, assimilating into the general American population in the course of a generation or two. All of the treaties, however, did state that the “right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.” This key clause was originally included for three reasons: Native American representatives generally would not sign without it; Stevens was in a rush to get the land signed over; and, simply put, so that the government would not have to supply food to the tribes during the transition period when they learned farming methods on their new reservations. Unbeknownst to Stevens, this expedient and pragmatic addition to the treaties would, in the 1960s, become the central issue of an important civil rights conflict.
For many years, enforcement of these rights was a non-issue. The first groups of white settlers arriving in the mid nineteenth-century were outnumbered by the native population, and were preoccupied with farming, logging, mining, and shipbuilding. For most white settlers, fishing was not a primary pursuit, especially since many of them took the opportunity to trade with the natives for fish. Nor were the salmon or steelhead seen as a critically limited resource at that time. It was not until the early twentieth-century that serious conflict arose regarding the rights that had been reserved for the Native Americans by the early treaties.
In the meantime, the Federal government’s policy towards Native Americans had been refined as well. The Dawes Act of 1887 began the process of dividing up the reservations by creating individual homesteads for the resident tribal members. In Washington State, the result of this ‘allotment’ was the loss of a great deal of reservation land and the impoverishment of surviving tribal members, since relatively few Native Americans had settled down to become self-sufficient farmers in the way the government had hoped. The legal waters were further muddied by the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, which made all Native Americans citizens of the United States. The Federal government and the State government were united during this period in their attempts to eliminate the natives as a special class of citizens with a unique legal position. Federal policy then reversed itself in 1934 when, as part of the New Deal’s focus on alleviating poverty, President Roosevelt extended privileges of self-government and special benefits to the tribes. The establishment of the Indian Claims Commission in 1946 further reinforced the special relationship between the tribes and the Federal government. However, in 1953, federal policy reversed again as Congress passed Concurrent Resolution 108, which mandated a move towards "termination" of the special relationship between Native peoples and the federal government at the “earliest possible date.”
Against the backdrop of this confusing and inconsistent Federal policy, an equally confusing and inconsistent court record began to build up around the issue of native fishing rights in the Northwest. In 1942 the court offered a limited interpretation of native fishing rights in Tulee v. Washington, leavening its support for fishing rights by insisting that the treaty “leaves the state with power to impose on Indians equally with others … as … necessary for the conservation of fish.” In 1957 a split decision in State v. Satiacum was more definitive, ruling that the treaties “will continue to be superior to the exercise of the state’s police power.” However, in 1963 Washington v. McCoy modified this principle and once again upheld the right of the state to subject Native Americans to “reasonable and necessary regulations.” This murky and contradictory background of precedents made it easy for judges in the early 1960s to simply pick and choose the decision that best supported their interpretations and dismiss the rest as irrelevant.
Even though verdicts in the courts were ambiguous, the trend in state law enforcement during the 1940s and 1950s was not. Native Americans were restricted to fishing in ever-shrinking areas, or risked being arrested and having their gear confiscated and held for months, which would ruin their chances of making a living. The only truly safe place for the tribes to fish was on their reservations, where state officials had no jurisdiction. However, most of the reservations did not encompass the best fishing grounds; this was of course part of the original reason for the treaty provision for off-reservation fishing. Most native fishermen at this time lacked the expensive boats or fishing gear that would enable them to fish offshore in Puget Sound, let alone in the ocean. This left them at the mercy of state Fisheries and Game officials, who could easily monitor their activities from the banks of the rivers; it also left them vulnerable to public scrutiny while most commercial fishing was carried out far offshore, invisible to the general population.
Vigilant enforcement of restrictions on Native fishermen coincided with rapid growth in the white commercial and sport fisheries. Since World War II, these industries had expanded dramatically, far eclipsing the native catch. At the same time, the pressure put on the salmon and steelhead populations from increased pollution, hydroelectric dams, and runoff due to deforestation and development decreased the size of the runs just as the expanding commercial and sport fishing industries began to catch more and more fish. The result was a precipitous drop in the salmon and steelhead population. Predictably, authorities responded by stepping up enforcement of state regulations in the areas where fishing was most easily, cheaply, and visibly monitored, areas that were disproportionately fished by Native Americans.
The Late 1950s through the Early 1960s
Between the 1950s and the early 1960s, the general policy of the federal government became the "termination" of tribal identity and organization and the assimilation of Indians into the general population as citizens. As part of the agenda of assimilation, the government enforced all state laws (including fishing regulations) on Native Americans and whites equally. In 1957, the Washington State Legislature adopted laws based on Public Law 280, as part of the Federal policy of termination. This set of laws extended the power of state government over reservation lands. Though it specifically exempted fishing rights at this time, it weakened Federal barriers to state power over Native Americans. State officials frequently stressed the equality of Native Americans and regular citizens. They also emphasized that restrictions on Native American fishermen were part of the state’s progressive policies of conservation, which were adopted and begun through the initiative process in the 1920s and 1930s by the Washington State Sportsmen’s Council.
But the state’s methods were not always direct. For example, Milo Moore, Director of Fisheries in 1958, was publicly sympathetic to the fishing rights of Native Americans. He wrote, “If any man or race of people merit consideration in a fishery beyond that of all others, the American Indians claim that right.” His plans for the future of the fisheries in Washington State involved recognizing Native American rights and working with natives to improve conservation and fishing methods in order to benefit all parties. However, despite the high sounding rhetoric of these statements, the reality in practice was somewhat different. News articles of the time made statements such as, “Indians are exempt from state regulation, except as the tribes voluntarily agree to abide by them.” This appearance of voluntary consent covered up the coercion involved in the process. This article described a public hearing to discuss regulation of the Indian fisheries by the State Department of Fisheries, in mutual cooperation with the tribes. State regulations and the publicity for the modern and progressive conservation techniques proposed by State agencies and the influential Washington State Sportsmen’s Council combined with a negative presentation of Native Americans in the media to create an atmosphere of blame. Native Americans were consistently portrayed in the media as non-compliant and backward in their resistance to new conservation laws that were intended for the public good. They had become an easy target: the power dynamic was against the Native Americans as a minority group with little power or voice. As a result, mutual cooperation more often meant coerced compliance on the part of Native Americans in order to avoid being scapegoated for problems with the fish population.
The tribes’ response to this increasing attention and regulation in the 1950s was to attempt conciliation and compromise. Many felt that as a small minority, they had little chance to affect any other solution and were fearful that their situation might become even worse if they tried to resist. Another article from the early 1960s supported the reality of these worries. It announced that Indian fishing was a “Problem for Congress,” and complained that a previous court ruling allowing state regulation of the Indians was not being fully upheld, concluding that Congress would have to act to “resolve all difficulties in this area.” This was a reference to removing the problem altogether by either negating the treaties, or forcing the sale of any actual legal rights so that the state could freely enforce its conservation policies.
During the 1950s some individual Native Americans did fish illegally, but in very small numbers. Most did so simply for economic reasons, without an overtly political agenda, and tried to avoid being seen or caught. Billy Frank, later an important founding member of the Survival of the American Indian Association, was an example of this type. However, some, like Robert Satiacum in 1954, fished illegally with an eye toward generating legal cases. Washington v. Satiacum became the major court case of the 1950s related to the ‘Indian fishing problem.’ However, the split verdict it generated in 1957 in favor of Native American rights in formed a notably weak precedent, and even the tenure of Milo Moore, a Fisheries Director who was ostensibly sympathetic to the tribes, was insufficient to make it enforceable. By the early 1960s, state enforcement officials openly ignored the ruling and made numerous arrests, as well as confiscated boats and fishing equipment.
This bleak situation in the early 1960s grew even worse in 1963 when Walter Neubrech, the head of the enforcement division of the Department of Game, provided a clear example of the negative image of Native Americans being put forward in the media. A Seattle Times article portrayed natives as the enemy in no uncertain terms. With a headline asking “Skagits on the Warpath?” the article printed claims by Neubrech that his enforcement officers had been shot at and threatened, and quoted him as saying, “They [the Indians] have been crowding us.” It reported a December incident in which two Native Americans had been caught illegally fishing on the Skagit River, having caught both steelhead and salmon in their 150-foot net. This equipment was illegal for non-commercial fishermen according to state regulations, and net fishing for steelhead was prohibited even for commercial fishermen under new conservation regulations. The public, media-driven image of Native Americans as anti-conservation, selfish, violent, even anarchic, was difficult for the natives to combat. The state cracked down, and in 1963 amended the laws based on Public Law 280 to extend civil jurisdiction without tribal consent over specified lands and some specific activities on all reservations. These actions initiated the first involvement of the Washington State Civil Liberties Union in the battle over Indian rights.
In the courtroom, while the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the Satiacum verdict in 1963, Washington v. McCoy, an important new fishing case decided that same year, dismissed the earlier pro-Native American decision “with a footnote.” On the local level, at Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually River, court cases were proceeding against Native Americans as well. On January 29th, 1964 Judge Robert H. Jaques issued a temporary injunction against the Nisqually Indians for off-reservation net fishing.
This last incident proved the final spur for the founding of the Survival of the American Indian Association. The stage was set for a major confrontation over an increasingly valuable and limited resource. The confrontation's most dramatic and decisive battles would occur in and around a small settlement on the Nisqually River in southern Puget Sound – Frank’s Landing.
1964: First Actions of the Survival of the American Indian Association
On December 23rd, 1963, some of the soon-to-be founding members of the SAIA marched on the state capital in Olympia, carrying signs that read “No salmon – No santa.” The Governor invited them in, listened to their complaints, and sent them away with only a dismissive, “Nice to hear your problems. Come back again.” The Native Americans involved in this protest were among those most adversely affected by the active state enforcement of fishing regulations. Many had been arrested on multiple occasions by state officers, and their gear had been confiscated numerous times. After years of waiting, they were completely disillusioned with the tribal organizations’ slow and halting attempts to resolve the fishing rights dispute through negotiation and compromise with state authorities. They saw an immediate need for confrontation and direct action in order to force real changes.
The SAIA was founded in early 1964 as an avowedly radical group, dedicated to resolving the fishing rights issue through direct and uncompromising civil disobedience. The group also intended to resist the cultural assimilation of Native Americans through education and cultural activities, but their raison d’être was the defense of Indian treaty rights. They would go out of their way to get arrested and bring their case into the public eye, using whatever forms of publicity they could engineer to further their goals. The founding members of the group were mostly long-term residents of the small town of Frank’s Landing near the Nisqually Reservation, but also included some very important and influential outsiders including members and affiliates of the National Indian Youth Council and of the regional chapter of the NAACP.
The group had few resources, but was able to retain Jack Tanner, an attorney and the regional director of the NAACP in Tacoma, for a sum of $50 raised, fittingly, with a fish-bake. Tanner had substantial experience in the legal arena, and in later years became a federal court judge. The inclusion of a man who had experience in the larger civil rights movement proved extremely valuable. Summing up the importance of this connection to the NAACP in later years, Robert Satiacum said, “We can learn much from the Negro. There’s got to be more communication.” Don Matheson agreed, saying “Let’s face it, our fight is the same. This whole thing has given us a better understanding of the Negro’s problems.” With Tanner’s involvement, “the movement has become even more closely identified with civil rights.” Throughout the course of the long campaign, Tanner defended many of the Native Americans and others who were arrested at the fish-ins, applying the experience he derived from defending black Americans in their own civil rights struggles. Besides legal defense, he also contributed by helping file cases against the state authorities and keeping constant pressure on the state government. While the NAACP would later be happy to claim its involvement in the Native American civil rights campaign through Tanner, at the time he was subject to criticism from local chapters. The Seattle NAACP newsletter published articles chastising him for his involvement in ‘personal projects’ at the expense of his internal NAACP duties as regional director in Tacoma. The Seattle chapter wrote that Tanner “continued to ‘march with his foot in his mouth,’ to his pleasure pursuits instead of his polling place on election day,” and accused him of using the Native American protests as “a good publicity gimmick for Jack Tanner.” Tanner's decision to continue his assistance to the Native Americans despite this criticism eventually paid off. He won over his cohorts in the NAACP, which became a strong backer of the fishing rights campaign, a fact that indicates the connection of the new protests to nationwide civil rights campaigns and a larger movement.
Another key organization in the formation of the SAIA was the National Indian Youth Council, founded in 1961. The NIYC was oriented towards furthering the survival of native culture through scholarships for Native American students, as well as pursuing many other associated causes nationwide. It was a vigorous opponent of the federal termination policy. The NIYC was a small organization based on its membership and annual budget, but effectively used publishing and mass media to attract widespread publicity to its campaigns. The costs for this activity alone made up over 93 percent of the NIYC's budget in 1965. Hank Adams, who arrived on the scene shortly after the first protests in February, was an Asiniboin-Sioux and a member of the National Indian Youth Council. Though young, Adams already had considerable political experience from volunteer work in other organizations, including the Democratic Kennedy campaign in California. His role in the new organization would be to coordinate publicity and to help organize protests. Other founding members of the SAIA included Al and Maiselle Bridges, Billy Frank Sr. and Jr., and Donald and Janet McCloud. All of these individuals were residents of Frank’s Landing and some were also members of the Nisqually and Puyallup communities. Not everyone was involved with strategy and planning in the organization, however. Billy Frank Jr., for instance, “was not a policy guy. I was a getting-arrested guy.”
Of the people who were involved in planning strategy, Janet McCloud was selected to be the first leader of the SAIA. In a 1966 manuscript McCloud emphasized the unlikelihood of the SAIA finding justice in the courts. She quoted judges to demonstrate their bias against the Native Americans. Ironically, one of the judges McCloud cited was Judge Boldt, who reportedly said, “I don’t want to hear any more about these damn Indian fishing cases.” She also directly linked the Native American situation to the black civil rights movement: “The American Negro’s revolution has necessitated a change in the whiteman’s mental picture of the colored people of the world.”
McCloud's militancy in her writing and public statements to the press had an immediate impact. The newly formed SAIA was quickly disavowed by the official organizations of both local tribes, the Puyallup and the Nisqually. Through the mid 1960s, the official position of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians was that “cooperation between various Indian organizations and the Bureau of Indian Affairs will resolve the current problems without any need for the enactment of federal laws.” The SAIA was a poor fit for the current tribal agenda of compromise and negotiation. The tribal councils believed that such uncompromising direct action would only damage ongoing efforts to improve their public image. The SAIA, for its part, described the tribal council leaders as being “strongly influenced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” and accused them of “stooging for the whites against their own people.” SAIA leaders referred to themselves as “the fighting Indians,” and made their rallying call: “Join the most militant Indian organization in America today.”
Despite the lack of support from the official tribal communities, the SAIA moved forward with its plans. By February 27th, official calls were being printed in the general media for participation in the fish-ins at Frank’s Landing. Pre-event coordination was provided by the NIYC. These protests resulted in major media attention, which provided a different view of Native Americans and their cause compared to the media coverage of earlier incidents. While earlier articles, such as the 1962 Seattle Times article about the Quinault tribe, had included insinuations about the tribes’ impact on the fish runs, paired with tribal efforts at compromise and conciliation, now the coverage depicted a group of uncompromising natives backed by NAACP Regional Director Jack Tanner. One article quoted Tanner saying that if Native Americans were arrested he "‘plans to file a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court.’” Other journalists noted that “the Indians … had become more sophisticated in their protest.” This was the beginning of a far more confrontational approach to Native Americans civil rights, one that the tribal governments had been leery of. The Native Americans involved also saw the initial fish-ins as a turning point – the start of something new and different. When Don McCloud was arrested at a fish-in on March 4th, he simply stated, “We have to go through with this now.”
The next step for the SAIA was to dramatically increase publicity and exposure by attracting celebrities to the cause. On March 2nd, 1964, Marlon Brando and John Yaryan (an Episcopal minister from San Francisco) were arrested at an NIYC fish-in on the Puyallup River. Hank Adams, who as in charge of publicity for both the NIYC and the SAIA, roused reporters at 2:00 AM to make sure that they would be on hand for the arrests. Brando and Yaryan, as it turned out, were in custody for less than two hours. The prosecutor dropped the charges, saying “This was done for show only, and we are not going to make a mockery out of the law or our own offices.” He ordered the two released “despite their desire to be jailed.” However, other Native Americans were jailed that day for participating in fish-ins. A crowd of about 200 curious spectators watched as they were arrested. Governor Albert D. Rossellini defended the arrests, stating that the fish-ins were “a deliberate violation of the laws of the State of Washington and as such the Game Department had a responsibility to enforce the laws.” The next day, Brando and a group of around 1000 Native Americans and supporters marched in Olympia, and Brando and some of the leaders had a meeting with the Governor. Journalists writing about the incident described “a new kind of Indian warfare in which Hollywood showmanship and Madison Avenue promotion methods are used for defense.” Sympathetic articles appeared in local newspapers describing the natives’ subsequent time in jail and noting that three ACLU attorneys were now assisting Jack Tanner.
Tanner handled the cases adroitly and assisted Billy Frank with filing complaints and allegations of police brutality during the arrests. As the fish-ins expanded, many more arrests were made, overwhelming Tanner and his staff. Fortunately other attorneys made their services available. Local attorney Alva C. Long wrote of his case on December 1st, 1965 that “neither attorney (myself and Malcolm McLeod from Seattle) have been compensated in anything but ticklement for doing a fairly decent job.” These volunteers were doing the work pro bono in order to demonstrate their support for the cause of civil rights.
The State attempted to defuse the situation in the face of the massive amount of media coverage generated by the fish-ins. Walter Neubrech, the Chief of the Enforcement Division of the Department of Game, issued a press release describing how small the group of Native Americans involved in the protests were: “only 178 Indians were fishing contrary to state laws beyond reservation boundaries. The Indian population in the state at present is 18,000. Therefore, less than 1% are actually fishing contrary to state law.” He complained that, despite the ultra-minority status of this group, “It has been very difficult for a law enforcement agency to maintain dignity and proper respect for the laws of the state of Washington in view of the tremendous amount of public attention that has been directed towards this Indian fishery off their reservation.” Neubrech then resorted to scare tactics, attributing the drop in fish population on the Puyallup River to the unrestricted commercial fishing of “three Indian brothers,” on whom he laid the sole blame for the “virtual destruction” of the fish run. He even added that “the potential threat exists" for Indians of to start taking deer and elk on national forest land. Neubrech also referenced the divided native community, drawing a distinction between the ‘good Indians’ and the ‘bad Indians’: “A fair number [of Native Americans] fish commercially during established seasons in keeping with conservation laws. A large majority of the Indian people are gainfully employed and support their families in various trades and professions other than fishing.”
While some of Walter Neubrech’s statements were wild scare tactics, others were essentially true – the number of Native Americans participating in the fish-ins was statistically small, and many members of the tribal organizations did not agree with their tactics. In fact, even as the protests increased, tribal attempts at conciliation moved forward. On June 21st, 1964, the Intertribal Council of Western Washington adopted a resolution calling for an independent study and survey of the Washington State fisheries as a whole, as a beginning for a cooperative conservation management system. The resolution was then presented to the Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs on August 5th, 1964. There was no attempt to implement the group's recommendations, but the continued call for compromise and balanced, independent viewpoints shows that the Indian community was not monolithic in its position on the fish-ins.
Over the next year, as protests at Frank’s Landing increased in frequency and publicity remained constant, there were more strong reactions to the protests from opposition groups. This opposition can be seen as an indication of the success of activist publicity campaigns, and the increasing frustration and anger of opponents. For example, at a meeting on December 6th, 1964, the Washington State Sportsmen’s Club (WSSC) passed a vindictive resolution encouraging the state Fisheries and Game Departments to destroy the fish runs on the rivers affected by the fish-in protests:
“Be it further resolved that the Department of Game and the Department of Fisheries open all affected streams and adjacent waters to all legal sport and commercial fisheries and to allow such waters to become barren until such time as the Congress of the United States or the courts of our land sets up enforceable regulations that will allow the State to carry on a reasonable fisheries management program…”
This was nothing less than a scorched earth policy, promulgated and endorsed by an extremely influential organization, officially devoted to conservation, with between 20,000 and 30,000 members statewide. Copies of the resolution were forwarded to state officials. A few months later, from March 5-7th, 1965, the National Wildlife Federation Annual Convention was held in Washington, D.C. At the convention, the Oregon Wildlife Federation circulating a resolution claiming that,
“WHEREAS, under present laws the Indian tribes cannot police the conduct of tribal members when off their reservations; and,
WHEREAS, the Federal Government cannot control the conduct of Indian tribal members with relation to hunting and fishing when off their reservations; and,
WHEREAS, the States are unable to enforce State laws or regulations…when such laws or regulations conflict with hunting and fishing rights alleged to have been granted the Indian tribes by treaties with the United States…
THEREFORE IT BE RESOLVED that the National Wildlife Federation, in annual convention assembled…hereby express the belief: 1. that members of Indian tribes off their reservations should be subject to all hunting and fishing laws and regulations, both Federal and State; and, 2. that, if it is determined that the Indians do actually possess unrestricted hunting and fishing rights off their reservations, by virtue of existing treaties, the Federal Government should purchase and quiet these rights in the over-all public interest.”
This same text was later passed as a resolution by the WSSC on September 19th, 1965, “after much discussion.” The degree of attention paid by these organizations was a testament to the wide promulgation of publicity about the issue spearheaded by the SAIA and NIYC.
In October 1965, protests increased again. As both sides clashed, tensions came to a head, and a series of “tense and violent” protests occurred on the Nisqually River, near Frank’s Landing. The Native Americans of the SAIA were not pacifists, and had frequently threatened to defend themselves with violence if necessary. On October 7th, state police arresting a group of protesting Indians rammed their boat, either by accident or on purpose, and dumped the protesters into the water. On the 9th, state officers raided Billy Frank’s property to confiscate his fishing gear, and there met violent resistance from the Native Americans. On the 13th, a well-publicized protest culminated in “an outright battle of paddles, sticks, stones, and fists.” Both sides levied charges of assault and brutality.
The increased publicity surrounding the fish-ins brought in even more support from outside organizations. On November 17th, 1965, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Olympia offered his financial and moral support, including a donation of $1000 for direct support of the SAIA. Other churches provided monetary support, although some did so anonymously. It was also after the violence of the October 13th fish-in that the ACLU first agreed to defend people charged with interfering with the police during the confrontations. By March 1966, the ACLU had agreed to defend Indians involved directly in the fish-in protests as well. This was the first time the ACLU had entered a case specifically to defend Native American rights. In spring 1966, the Federal Justice Department also began to assist the Native Americans in legal matters, submitting amicus curiae briefs in two cases.
The SAIA continued to work hard on outreach and publicity. Another celebrity supporter was found in Dick Gregory, an African-American comedian and activist. His arrest at a fish-in brought national publicity to the cause once more, with articles appearing even in the New York Times. The SAIA also brought in and gave tours of Frank’s Landing and the fish-in sites to people who could be effective in getting their message out. During 1966, several filmmakers, publishers, and reporters were given guided tours of the fish-in sites and allowed access to members of the community at Frank’s Landing for interviews and pictures. These contacts were due in large measure to the efforts of Dr. Evans Roberts of the American Friends Service Committee, which was becoming involved because of how the fish-ins addressed civil rights, and what the Friends saw as “very basic questions of human values.” The July 1966 SAIA newsletter also included ample evidence of the success of previous outreach activities in the form of a letters of support from across the nation.
1968: Confrontation and Publicity
In 1966, Janet McCloud left the SAIA to pursue the goal of educating others about Native American culture on a more national scale. Hank Adams of the NIYC became head of the SAIA and worked to further its involvement with other movements and organizations. The increasing militancy of the organization under Adams' leadership soon attracted non-native students and counterculture supporters to Frank’s Landing. Publicity and outreach, the SAIA's stock-in-trade, was also expanded as work began on a major documentary film that would eventually be released in 1971.
The next significant push for the fish-in campaign came in 1968. There were some early protests on June 13th and 14th, organized by Robert Satiacum of the Puyallups. These drew few people, and little response from the media or the government. In September, however, new actions by the SAIA had a major impact. Members of a variety of groups attended the September protests, ensuring wider participation and a broad audience. On September 4th, a small number of Native Americans and about fifty non-native supporters set four nets in the off-reservation area of the lower Nisqually river as state Fisheries officers watched from their side of the river, across from Frank’s Landing. Hank Adams led the group, announcing, “fishing would continue daily for at least five days.” Non-native supporters included members of the Washington Peace and Freedom Party, the Students for a Democratic Society (including Robert Stern), the Socialist Workers’ Party, and a single representative of the Black Panthers (Billy Jackson). The presence of even one member of the Black Panthers, a group with a history of clashes with local police, helped ensure that the protests would be monitored by an increased number of police officers and characterized by friction between activists and law enforcement. For example, on September 9th, after several arrests over the first few days (including both Hank Adams and Billy Frank), the Seattle Times reported that there were “several dozen officers” stationed at the protest site, their numbers “swelled by rumors that Black Panthers might be on hand for the demonstration.” There were more than 250 demonstrators who had to be dispersed after the arrests were made.
By September 13th Hank Adams was out on bail, and the protests and arrests continued. The Times reported that Adams and Al Bridges' daughter, Suzette, "will travel to a meeting of Mexican-Americans in Denver to solicit support. [Adams] said that some outside support already had been pledged by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” In other words, Adams was still on task, locating more sources of support for the SAIA, wherever they might be found.
The demonstration soon grew beyond Hank Adams’ original plan for a five day fish-in. By October 20th, 1968, the encampment at Frank’s Landing was forty-six days old, and tight security had been set up. ‘No Trespassing’ signs were posted identifying the property as ‘Federal Trust Lands,’ and a roadblock set up by the state police prevented other protesters from arriving. A total of about thirty people were involved with the camp by this point; and since September 4th there had been twenty-six arrests at Frank’s Landing and in the surrounding area. Although natives did most of the actual fishing, many of the arrests were of non-natives interfering with the state officers’ attempts to arrest the fishermen. According to one report, “The non-Indian supporters are viewed by the state as ‘a bunch of hippies’ bent on civil disorder. Some are.” Because of the formal backing of some of the outside groups, some of the Native Americans who had been involved in the protests backed out, and at this point the outside supporters said to reporters that “they are there as individuals … [but] the groups still back the fish-ins.” Other participants included several students from the University of Washington. The Native Americans had been able to keep their catch, and even sell the fish to local restaurants and individuals, so they felt that they were being successful despite having to cover $3,500 bail costs for the arrested fishermen. Each side accused the other of violence. Hank Adams and others had chosen to arm themselves with rifles to help protect the site.
The minutes of a September 22nd, 1968 Washington State Sportsmen's Council meeting provide a quick summation of the group's opinion during this ongoing, major series of protests: “the Supreme Court decision of Indian treaties has not provided all the answers. Recent uprisings have been promoted by hippies, yippies and renegade Indians. The final accounting will be made by recognized members of the various tribes under due processes of law.” The WSSC's derision for the 'renegade' SAIA and its outside supporters is clear, as is the fact that the WSSC still looked to the tribal councils as possible sources of compromise beneficial to its interests. For their part, tribal organizations were also, for the most part, against the methods of the SAIA, but opinion was shifting. One article from 1968 reported that “while most Indians disagree with the tactics of Bridges and those who defy state law in the fishing struggle, virtually all agree with their position on the treaty-rights question.”
While the participation of non-natives opened the protests up to this derision, the participation of these groups was instrumental in helping the protests to achieve their goals, especially in the realm of publicity. The many arrests of the extended 1968 protests also created massive publicity, highlighted by coverage of the trial of Hank Adams, head of the SAIA and one of the major Indian spokesmen. As he was not associated with any local tribe, Adams was able to make claims of Indian solidarity as part of his defense, turning accusations about his lack of a stake in the matter into a positive statement of Native American unity. As a tiny minority, Native Americans acting by themselves had had little impact on public opinion during the previous decades, but after a few short years of coordinated protest, in combination with a growing national focus on minorities and civil rights, public opinion was finally shifting.
1970 and Beyond: Culmination
By 1970, despite continued and ongoing fish-ins, the campaign of the Survival of the American Indian Association could be considered a success. The protests forced the State to compromise with the Native Americans and even resulted in a lawsuit filed on June 17th, 1970 by the WSSC, in which the state took the side of the Native Americans. The State agreed to permit fifteen days of net fishing in the Puyallup River during the fall by Native Americans, and the WSSC was furious. This reversal of the usual order illustrates how confusing and multi-sided the issue had become, and also the effect that the SAIA's continued assaults had had on the resolve of the state Fisheries and Game organizations.
By 1970 the tribes’ own organization and leadership had also finally gotten on board with the protests, discarding their attempts at reconciliation and even forming an armed guard force to protect the fishing sites. On August 13th, 1970, at a press conference at the Seattle Indian Center, Charlie Cantrell of the Puyallup tribe, accompanied by representatives of the Nisqually and other tribes, announced that the Indians would police their own fish-ins with armed guards – their own “police force,” which had been authorized by the tribal councils. The decision was framed as a response to violence on the part of the police: “The Indians claim they have been beaten by law officers, and are forming the armed force only for self-protection.”
Indeed, police attacked a major fishing camp on the Puyallup River on September 9th in what was by far the most violent and publicized incident to date. The Seattle Times reported that fifty-five adults and five children were arrested, and that “Police used tear gas and State Game Department officials used clubs to break up a force of about 30 Indians armed with guns, knives, and fire bombs.” According to the Times, Native Americans fired “four warning shots into the water near the boat” before the real action began. According to a Native American leader, twenty-five state fisheries people had scouted out the camp early that morning, and then returned a few hours later with reinforcements from the Police Department, the Game Department, and even a Prosecuting Attorney. When the Police moved in, “One Indian threw a fire bomb on the railroad bridge to hold back the state game men moving across the bridge with clubs. The bomb apparently set off a blaze which damaged the bridge.” The police did not attack without warning, as the occupants of the camp had apparently witnessed their scouting trip, and also “before the confrontation, police warned the Indians several times over a loudspeaker to lay down their arms and peaceably leave the area.” Ramona Bennett of the Puyallup Tribal Council was defiant, saying, “If anyone lays a hand on that net they are going to get shot.” This militancy showed that the tribes now had governing councils that finally embraced the SAIA’s confrontational methods. It is clear from this and the above reports that violence was endemic on both sides, and that tensions were running high.
Public opinion ran in favor of the Indians, despite the fact that there was considerable evidence of violent behavior on both sides. Native Americans originally arrested for interfering with the police were later acquitted by an all-white jury, which even accused the police of conspiracy to bring about the violent confrontation. The defense lawyers in this trial also made accusations that the entire raid was prosecuted for economic reasons, because of the potential damage changes in Native American fishing rights might do to the commercial fisheries. Several jurors were apparently so completely in agreement with this assessment that after the trial, they signed deerskin copies of the verdict to be distributed to tribes throughout the country as an indication of “what kind of justice the Indian receives in Washington State.” Some of the accused were still convicted of contempt of court for various reasons, but the case still represented a major victory, especially in indicating that public opinion had turned against the police and other state officials. What is more, one of the most important observers of the September 9th incident was U.S. Attorney Stanley Pitkin, who nine days later filed U.S. v. Washington, the case that eventually led to the 1974 Boldt decision.
Another indicator of the effectiveness of the fish-ins was that white sports fishermen began adopting the fish-in protest method for themselves – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. On October 5th, 1970, a small group of white sports fishermen announced a fish-in on the Puyallup River in contravention of current fishing laws. Four boats were put in the river at the Clark’s Creek Bridge, and reportedly one fish was caught. The sport fishermen were spurred on to this action by the Fisheries Department's decision to grant the Indians “bonus days” of fishing for an especially large run of coho salmon that season. Thor Tollefson, the director of the Department of Fisheries, said of the white fishermen, “if they do this, they will be arrested.” The next day, five whites were arrested while demonstrating against the they saw as the special privileges of Native American fishermen. Their boats and nets were confiscated, as had been the case for protesting Native Americans. The arrests came was despite the fact that only one 14-inch steelhead was caught, and it was immediately released. The natives ignored the counter-protest: the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote, “While the demonstration was in progress, Indians tending nets on the river nearby paid little heed to the white fishermen.” There were about two hundred assorted onlookers. The protesters announced that they were disputing the three-days-a-week season allotted to Indians by Thor Tollefson and the Department of Fisheries, and also their alleged catch of steelhead when they were only authorized to fish for salmon on those days. Journalists recorded questions from the bystanders: “Are they going to club them (the whites) and mace them like they did the Indians?” Obviously, the idea of this form of demonstration had had an impact, and caught on – only the generally perceived success of the Native American protests could have led these white fishermen to copy them in hopes of achieving their goals.
By 1971, despite the fish-ins of white sport fisherman, the tide had shifted decisively in the Indians’ favor. Other than the January 19th shooting of Hank Adams by unknown assailants, indications were positive across the board. U.S. v. Washington was making its way through the court system, and it was clear to many that the ruling in this latest case would be important. The Nisqually at Frank’s Landing made it all of the way through the fall fishing season without a single arrest. The WSSC discontinued its funding for some of the ongoing court battles, and began experiencing internal difficulties in coordinating its opposition campaigns. The above-mentioned acquittal of native protesters occurred on February 24th, 1971. Another indication of the turn in public opinion came in debates over a newly proposed fish hatchery on the Nisqually River. Press releases and politicians used conciliatory language that was directed at the Native Americans. According to State Representative Hal Wolf of Yelm, “the first hatchery would benefit the Nisqually people in two ways. First, it would contribute a substantially new run of salmon to the river, and secondly, it would afford work opportunities since part of the plan for the hatchery is training Indians to operate the hatchery.” This propitiation by state officials is indicative of a recognition of the change in the status of Native Americans – no longer forced into a position of ‘voluntary’ cooperation, they had finally gained a position of power in the battle for the preservation of their fishing rights.
By 1972, the battle seemed to be close to an end. This thank-you appeared in the SAIA’s newsletter, The Renegade:
We find tragedy in the fact that the public knows names of only a handful of persons coming to help us when there have in fact been hundreds. We know their names. Even though they are not celebrities, they may well be condemned in their anonymity for joining us.
The Renegade was prescient. Some Native American supporters had been singled out for their actions. A professor at the University of Puget Sound, Dr. Earl LeRoy Annis, had been scheduled to teach military personnel at Fort Lewis. On March 9th, 1971, he was declared unfit to teach at Fort Lewis by the Education Officer, who cited Annis' arrest for “defying a police order to disperse at a demonstration by Indians on the Puyallup River last fall.” Annis offers only one example of the risks assumed by those who assisted the Native Americans in their fight.
The 1974 Boldt decision in U.S. v. Washington was vindication for the Survival of the American Indian Association. By acknowledging and providing federal support for Native Americans’ equal share of the fisheries, as well as providing for native regulation of their own fisheries, it answered every one of the group's demands. However, the decision increased the violent opposition of the other groups who were most affected by it – the white commercial and sport fishermen. Future cooperation and compromise would still be required, but now it would be conducted on a more level field, without as much of the power differential that existed before. The Boldt decision was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court in 1979, and still holds as law.
Ultimately, the fish-ins were successful in achieving the goals of the SAIA and instrumental in securing treaty fishing rights for the native communities of Washington State. Through this systematic and uncompromising form of protest, the Native American community achieved public recognition of the legality of their cause, as well as its essential justice. During the most intense six years of their struggle, as they acknowledged in their newsletter, Native American activists had received help, cooperation, and support from many individuals, as well as several key civil rights organizations, most importantly the NAACP, the NIYC, the ACLU, and the AFSC. This outside assistance was crucial to their eventual success.
The SAIA and its fish-ins were also effective in helping to connect the Native American Rights movement to the organizations and tactics of the greater civil rights movement, and proved, as many other organizations had already discovered, that cooperation between these independent groups was not only beneficial, but essential to the cause of freedom and equality for all.
I owe thanks to Professor Alexandra Harmon at the University of Washington for her help and corrections (especially with clarifying legal matters), and also to the University of New Mexico Center for Southwest Research for providing materials at a level far beyond the all of duty. This paper has been much improved by their assistance.
copyright (c) Gabriel Chrisman 2008
HSTAA 498 Autumn 2007
This paper won the 2008 UW Library Research Award for Undergraduates