Forty years ago, the bank of the Puyallup River was the scene of a violent struggle by Indian people encamped to defend their treaty fishing rights against hundreds of law-enforcement officers, many of them armed.
PUYALLUP INDIAN RESERVATION —
The banks of the Puyallup River are quiet now. But 40 years ago, this was the scene of a violent struggle by Indian people encamped to defend their treaty fishing rights against hundreds of law-enforcement officers, many armed.
By the time it was over, black smoke boiled into the sky as demonstrators set the creosoted timbers of a railroad trestle on fire. More than 60 Indians were arrested, and the site of their summer-long encampment by the river bulldozed.
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No one was killed that Sept. 9 on the riverbank — but the encounter left an indelible mark on state history.
The raid on the fish camp at Puyallup was the culmination of many clashes in the Fish Wars from the 1960s into the ’70s between tribal fishermen and police, from Frank’s Landing at Nisqually to the Puyallups’ camp in Tacoma.
Tribal members who put their nets in the rivers faced state and local police who cut their nets, confiscated their boats and roughed up and jailed them, said Judy Wright, Puyallup tribal historian.
Again and again, police arrested tribal members for poaching, even while fishing on reservation lands — prompting tribal members to defy police with staged “fish-ins” as cameras rolled, documenting the arrests. The conflict ultimately escalated to the raid on the fish camp that September morning.
The so-called fish-ins led to the filing of a case in federal court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, to protect Indians’ treaty fishing rights, confirmed in a 1974 court decision by U.S. District Judge George Boldt.
The Puyallup tribe today has more than 4,000 members — and its business enterprises, including its casinos, have made it one of the wealthiest tribes in the Interstate 5 corridor.
Back then, however, it was a struggle even for tribal members to raise bail to get their parents, uncles and aunts out of jail.
“Puyallup had nothing then,” said Ramona Bennett, 72, a Puyallup elder who chaired the tribal council at the time of the fish-ins and was the council member in charge of the fish camp.
“I am on the council and we have no office, we have a broken file cabinet and broken typewriter, we meet in a church basement for our tribal meetings, and in various people’s homes for the tribal council,” she said. “I think there was a budget for refreshments. The only money we had was for the maintenance of the cemetery.
“We used to say then, ‘We take such good care of our dead, will we ever get to take care of our living tribal members?’ “
And on the riverbank that day, they feared for their lives, Bennett said.
Men, women and children had been encamped along the river all summer, sometimes as many as 300 strong, watching over fishermen working the river to document the arrests on camera and bail them out of jail.
Media also covered the encampment and arrests, in a conflict that was reported across the country and drew the sympathies of celebrities including Marlon Brando and the singer Buffy Saint-Marie, who visited the fish camps.
And while they had no jurisdiction on the Puyallup’s land on the riverbank, the local chief of police arrived with a bullhorn and plenty of backup that morning and ordered approximately 80 men and women in camp to disperse.
But the Indians refused to leave.
Both sides were armed. And as police stormed the camp, shots were fired, clubs flailed, tribal members were thrown to the ground. Others ran, fearing for their lives. “They were all up on the (Highway) 99 bridge, with rifles, and we could see their rifles kicking, and you could feel the bullets going by; there is nowhere you can go,” Bennett said.
“I thought I was shot dead; somebody pointed a gun at me, and pulled the trigger, but it was a gas canister.
“I remember walking through camp and I was so scared my legs were stiff; it was that Frankenstein walk you do when you are so absolutely terrified.”
Bennett was arrested with the others, including a non-Indian photographer in the camp, Dolores Varela Phillips, who sewed her film inside the lining of her purse to protect it from confiscation. “I was just shooting and shooting [photos]. I don’t even remember doing it, I was so frightened,” said Varela Phillips, now a New Mexico resident whose photographs would become the iconic images of the conflict.
All charges against the demonstrators ultimately were dropped.
On the boat ramp at the 11th Street Bridge in Tacoma on a recent morning, Puyallup fishermen gathered to pursue the chinook and silver salmon that come up the river just as they did that morning — although in far lesser numbers.
The meaning of the sacrifices made by their elders that day is held high in their memories, many fisherman said.
“They understood what was coming, and that they needed to do this for us,” said Mike Williams, 52, a Puyallup tribal fisherman who drove up from Nisqually the previous night to put his net in the river at the start of the midnight opening. He never misses an opportunity to fish, Williams said, and he is passing the skill onto his sons.
“I am teaching them so they will know their culture and their heritage,” Williams said. “They have everyday jobs, but this keeps our culture alive, so they can teach their kids.”
Mark Bridges, 60, is a fish buyer for the tribe, purchasing tribal members’ catch for use in tribal gatherings and ceremonies. As tribal members lined up in their trucks to deliver their fish, he peeled bills off stacks of cash on the dashboard to pay them. Some fishermen made as much as $1,000 to $2,000 more than the previous day.
“It brings chills to me to think of all the things we had to fight for, and still are fighting for,” said Bridges, whose aunt and uncle were leaders of the fish camp.
After the Boldt decision, he said, violence against tribal fishermen surged again. “I’ve had people take shots at me while I was fishing. I’ve had people throw dynamite in the water next to me while I was fishing with my kids.”
Today, Bennett said, there is a new appreciation for the role of tribes in keeping salmon runs going in urbanizing environments. The tribe’s commitment was unshakable then, and remains so, she said.
“In our religion,” she said, “we have an obligation to protect our brothers and sisters, the nations of salmon, and so it was a religious conviction, as well as a need for social and economic change.
“Sometimes you have to think generationally, and that is what everyone in the camp was doing that day.”
Much as things have changed in 40 years, tribal leaders at Puyallup remain aware of a tenuous balance, Wright said. She cautions young Indians to not become complacent.
Her nieces, Jennifer Conway, 25, and Patricia Conway, 28, say they carry on their family’s fishing tradition in part to honor the sacrifice of their father, who endured the raid 40 years ago.
On a recent night, Jennifer Conway said, she caught about 40 pounds of salmon. She said she reveled in being out on the river and the hard work of pulling the net.
“It is to honor my father and all the people who fought in the Fish Wars,” Conway said. “It will have been for nothing if we don’t continue fishing and teach it to our children.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com