Native American Hunting and Fishing in Paradise

At the beginning of each conflict management class or “difficult people” workshop I teach, I quote Dale Swedberg. This wasn’t original with him, but I like how he said it: “Remember, whenever you deal with people, facts are facts, but perceptions are reality.”

Lately, I’m hearing such “realities” about Native Americans and their fishing and hunting on “usual and accustomed” ground. Some of us don’t get that these are God-given rights Native Americans retained back when they ceded land to the US, not rights that the treaty writers gave them. In Washington today, we have 24 Treaty Tribes with rights to fish and wildlife and their management. Too much of what some of my fellow outdoor nuts believe to be true is pure fantasy. I keep thinking about The Old Man – my father – when a friend would start making decisions and arguments over some made-up truth. I see his clear, hard stare directed into the eyes of someone who had one last final chance to restore himself to The Old Man’s good graces. In a soft, strong voice, he would say, “Alright… Cut the crap. What’s the truth?”

I still hear that Indian fishers are killing more fish than they can handle, leaving them to rot. (The guy swears it is true, ‘cause he heard it from a good buddy who saw it with his own eyes.) I am told that Indians net salmon before they can get into rivers, thus making it impossible for sport fishermen to catch them. (Says Homey: “You shoulda been there – nobody was catching anything. It had to be those %!$?# Indians and their nets!”) I hear that there are very few bull elk in the Colockum herd because the Yakamas and other regional tribal members are slaughtering them – probably hundreds a year – and selling the heads. (Homey’s reality: “Well, how else do you explain the lack of bulls? Everybody knows these guys just drive up into the hills and start shooting at any bull that moves.”)

Those salmon stories still go around, but today most of us just ignore them and go catch fish.

It took a while to get us here. Thirty years ago, Chinook salmon in the Yakima were kaput…gone. The state sued the Yakamas to stop traditional subsistence fishing, but ocean and non-Indian Columbia River fishing continued. The four tribes doing subsistence fishing in the Columbia System – led by the Yakamas – off and on voluntarily quit fishing to help rebuild stocks, while biologists argued that heavy commercial fishing, poor irrigation water management in spawning areas, and the last of the Columbia Basin dams were wiping out the salmon. In the ‘80s, the Yakamas sued to stop the Klickitat Irrigation District from essentially draining the Klickitat River for agriculture (wiping out another “usual and accustomed” Yakama fishery). Battles went on.

During the same time period, Cle Elum dam was shut down to preserve irrigation water.  The closure virtually destroyed the redds (salmon spawning “nests”) in the rivers, and killed any smolts (salmon young) trying to move down river. Bob Tuck, a fisheries biologist for the Yakama Nation, suggested that the Cle Elum could be kept open to protect the salmon redds and smolts, while other dams which did not hover over critical salmon habitat were closed off. The state and feds withheld salmon eggs – future salmon – and refused to consider water changes. The tribes sued, putting their tribal treaty rights on the line all the way to the Supreme Court.

Treaty rights of the Yakamas were upheld. Appropriate flows are now kept in the streams. Together, irrigators, power districts, sport fishers and Indians have restored much of this missing piece of the life web to our rivers. I will argue that, without the Yakamas putting their treaty rights on the line, and fighting for them, there would be few anadromous fish in the Columbia Basin. In 2014, we are looking at outstanding returns of Coho, and possible historic Chinook runs – we can all now go fishing.

On the other hand, those “Indians killing all the bull elk” stories just keep growing. Sadly, policy decisions about roads and closures are argued by some on the basis of keeping the Indians away from the elk. You will rarely see it in a written statement, since the Natives’ hunting and fishing rights are law, but you will hear it time and again in conversation. Even sadder, some of those making the arguments are people in whom I have vested trust to look after my grandchildren’s outdoor future. Now what?

Consider what we do know. People who spend large and regular blocks of time out among the elk on the public ground of Paradise report little evidence of Indian elk kills. The Colockum herd is a quarter to a third larger than management goals of 4,500 elk. Local Fish and Wildlife pros recently estimated 23 to 25 Indian killed bulls yearly, and DFW Sergeant Sprecher – who tracked the unreported Indian hunting as carefully as he could – was confident that the number was well under 50. Wildlife pros are now finding the large numbers of huge bulls which they missed for years. The herd is healthy and there are plenty of bulls to go around.

Arguing for road or wildlife area closures on the basis of a widely-repeated fantasy of Indians slaughtering all the big bulls is specious and disheartening. As The Old Man would say, “Cut the crap! Deal with the truth.”

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized