Fishing wars: Blood on the riverbanks

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From the beginning, Indian culture of the Pacific Northwest derived from a fishing-centered way of life. This culture is being systematically relegated to oblivion. Greedy corporations, assisted by the government, steal the fish and Indian lands, and terrorize fisher families, while a vicious anti-Indian campaign is propagated to justify the genocide. The courts and Congress make insidious inroads upon the original treaties signed with sovereign Indian nations, and Native American communalism faces destruction as Indians are lured into “assimilation.” The war for survival reaches new levels of number and severity. Desperate Indians are fighting back and seeking sympathetic understanding and practical support from fair minded citizens of the world, for American Indians are an endangered people whose lives are at stake. The alarm must be sounded!

“The white man won’t stop until he has pushed us into the ocean.” The speaker is a Muckleshoot Indian, a tribal fisherman since the 1930s and a veteran of the long, bitter war between the Indians and white capitalist society. He is a grim observer of the doom threatening his people as they are brutally expelled from the Duwamish, the Nisqually, the Klamath, the mighty Columbia, and all the rest of the great rivers that nourish the life-giving salmon and steelhead.

But the Indian nations will not be pushed easily; they are fighting with indomitable will for the survival of their historic culture. And the battle is a terrible one, for Native Americans must combat well-financed legal assaults by the State; harassment from local police, state troopers, and federal marshals; and increasingly violent attacks by racist gangs.

Indian treaty lands, game, and rivers face the most serious threat since the West was invaded by white settlers. This is the Indians’ last stand, and they know it.

Night Vermin

Indians throughout the Northwest have been victimized by bullets. “My father was shot at just last week from that bridge,” says a woman, pointing to the First Avenue South bridge spanning the Duwamish River in Seattle. Another told the Freedom Socialist, “The Indian approach for years has been to avoid these attacks, but some tribal members are now carrying guns to defend themselves and their rights.

Almost every day, Indians discover their nets deliberately slashed, tangled, or stolen, and their boats smashed, stolen, or sabotaged. Damage to expensive equipment can cause fishermen to be out of work for weeks, resulting in tremendous hardship to their families.

In true Ku Klux Klan fashion, white hoodlums generally do their work at night, or from hiding places. Gangs of white “nighstriders” attack isolated Indians guarding their nets. They shatter car windows and boats, and beat up Indian guards.

Terror on the Columbia

The Tarabochias, a Chinook Indian family, have suffered an unremitting barrage of bullying and intimidation as they attempt to fish in the lower Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.

The Chinook treaties, drawn in the mid-1800s, were never ratified, leaving the Chinooks nonpersons in the eyes of the federal government. As a result, they have no land, and no U.S.-recognized legal right to fish in the Columbia. But they continue to fish, as they have for generations, in order to survive.

Homer Settler, a Yakima/Nez Perce Indian attorney who has specialized in treaty law for 22 years, described the Tarabochias’ situation to the Freedom Socialist: “Cops will run into them with a vehicle or a boat and the Indians will be charged. People gather in groups and shoot at them.”

According to Settler, various members of the Tarabochia family have been repeatedly charged with illegal vishing. And since fishing without a license is a felony in Oregon, one member of the family is now facing charges as a habitual felon.

Says Joe Tarabochia, “I’ve been arrested 5 or 6 times but convicted on 28 counts. They come up with as many charges as possible.”

“I was out fishing legally with my Mom,” he continues, “When a Fisheries boat came up. The Fisheries Department has nothing to do with us; The BIA and the tribe regulate our fishing. But the Fisheries agents asked for our license. I turned around to get it from my Mom, and when I turned back they had boarded our boat. They beat me up, knocked me out with their flashlights, sprayed me with Mace, called me names, and threatened to kill me.”

Joe Tarabochia is a frequent target. “I’ve been hassled and choked and intimidated, and with no warrant,” he says. “State officials broke into my home with no warrant last year. They said they lost it in the back seat of the car. They gave me one story after another why they didn’t have it.” Stuff like that goes on all the time.

“Legally these Indians are not human beings,” says attorney Settler. “Indians are in the same position as animals. What the hell kind of power is that? The status of these people must be publicized — the status of aboriginal people all over the world.

The Case of Ellery Choke

In the small towns near fishing sites, Native Americans are subjected to a chronic but hidden war of police badgering by means of traffic tickets, arrests for minor violations, and more serious provocations designed to interfere with Indian fishing.

Ellery Choke, a Yakima fisherman, was almost killed by racist thugs, yet the authorities have done nothing to help him.

Two white men attacked him in the men’s room of an Oakville, Washington tavern one evening, and the fight was so furious that the sink was ripped from the wall. Choke escaped and sat down at the bar, whereupon his attackers taunted and insulted him, and then grabbed him and threw him out of the tavern. Choke landed on his head on the concrete sidewalk.

One and one-half hours later, the town marshal, Al Brandt, picked him up, asked him if he was all right, and, rather than obtain medical help, simply dropped him off at his house, where Choke collapsed in a coma.

Three days later, when Choke’s family discovered his comatose body, they attempted to get the local aid car to take him to a hospital. They were refused.

Finally, they secured an ambulance from Centralia, 17 miles away, and Choke was taken to the Centralia Hospital. But his injuries were too serious to be treated there, so he was removed to Olympia where, after a 5-hour operation, surgeons removed a blood clot the size of an orange from his head.

Although Choke is still alive, he will never fish again. One of his hands is partially paralyzed and he has difficulty using his arms.

Nothing has been done to his assailants. Although his sister-in-law and others reported the incident, the Grays Harbor sheriff (in whose jurisdiction the assault occurred) claims he was never contacted.

The Grays Harbor prosecutor will do nothing without a police report, so he turned the case over to the Oakville town marshal to investigate. But the marshal has a longstanding reputation for harassment of Indians. And he is the same man who callously returned Choke home the night he was beaten.

Choke is suing the City of Oakville.

Nuts to Boldt

The federal court decision by Judge Boldt, reserving 50% of the salmon for treaty tribes, is looked upon with a jaundiced eye by Indians. “Judge Boldt gave away 50% of our fish,” they say.

And the licenses of non-treaty Indians have been revoked as a result of the judge’s ruling.

But Indians do support the sections of the Boldt decision which, belatedly, have begun to regulate fishing — something the state has refused to do in the past.

Though white fishermen are barely regulated by the government, Indian fishermen are regulated by both the government and their tribes. Contrary to the propaganda of the white fishing interests, tribes have their own fish commissions and hatcheries, and have always controlled their catches according to the species of fish. Natives were the first environmentalists.

The Boldt decision is under challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court, an extremely conservative body, and there is great danger that the treaties will be abrogated. Congressional bills threatening to destroy treaty rights have been submitted by phony liberals and by Jack Cunningham, an arch-conservative from Washington State who was not re-elected this year.

Clash on the Klamath

Full scale war erupted on the Klamath River in Northern California this summer. Federal agents in full riot gear, armed with M-16 rifles, attacked Native American men, women and children, who bravely defended themselves with rocks, oars, and their fists. Indian boats were rammed and swamped, and fishing nets, costing up to $500 apiece, were destroyed or confiscated.

The Indians were fishing in defiance of a moratorium imposed by the U.S. Department of the Interior because of a 30% decline in the salmon run. Before the moratorium expired at the end of the salmon run in October, at least 12 Indians had been injured by the Feds, 26 arrested, and more than 100 given citations for illegal fishing.

Blame the Victim

A special Court of Indian Offenses was set up by the federal government to enforce the moratorium, and special local deputies were sworn in. In the regulations issued on July I, the Department of the Interior alleged that Indian mismanagement and failure to “establish a uniform system of self-regulation” were responsible for the decreased number of salmon swimming upstream to spawn.

But Mark Waukchen, a Yurok Indian from the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California, places the responsibility elsewhere. Waukchen blames non-Indian commercial interests for the depletion of the salmon.

Dams built upriver to divert water to Sacramento have raised the water temperature, making it difficult for salmon to survive in the river. Logging companies have stripped the hillsides, causing erosion to clog the river with silt. The U.S. Forestry Service has sprayed herbicides in the area to kill off the underbrush and encourage the growth of redwood trees, further contributing to erosion and siltation problems which destroy the spawning beds. And the U.S. government regularly allows Russian and Japanese trawlers to penetrate the 200-mile limit and fish at the mouth of the Klamath River.

The military assaults against Native Americans are an attempt by the U.S. government to gain control of the precious natural resources of the region, says Waukchen. The Yurok, the Hoopa, and the Karok, the three tribes affected by the ban, have lived and fished along the Klamath and Trinity Rivers for centuries. Salmon is their main food staple and the core of their subsistence economy. But their reservation is also rich in timber, minerals, and water.

The escalating attack on Native people nationwide is directly tied to the economic situation, says Waukchen. The economic squeeze puts a squeeze on profits, too, and the big corporations are anxious to get their hands on the timber, water, coal, uranium, and other minerals on Indian land. The salmon crisis is just a dry run for the government in their conspiracy to rob the Indians of all their natural resources.

Survival Means Self-Defense

The Indians have no qualms about fighting back. Faith Mayhew, a Klamath member of United Indian Women and the Urban Indian Council in Portland, Oregon, told the Freedom Socialist:

“When FBI agents are attacking Indians, people must realize that we cannot put up with it forever. Indians are not pushing. We are simply trying to exercise our rights and continue to survive. Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that a handful of Indians are depleting the nation’s fish. The same thing is happening to the Eskimos who are being rationed one whale per tribe per year and then blamed for the depletion of whales …

And Joseph Quniones, a Native American living in Portland, was a gill-netter in 1969-70 and an activist in the Nisqually River fishing rights struggle in Washington State. Quniones says that the odds are uneven and the provocations intense.

“But the Indians should continue to fish and protect themselves as best they are able. We can and should protect ourselves from illegal assault. We are within our rights even according to the laws of this country.”

Indian Solidarity

There is a sense of urgency on the river. Waukchen recently called a family meeting to discuss the problem. “We’ll have to organize ourselves fast in the period of the next two years,” he said.

With recession just around the comer, it is clear that the U.S. government will not give in without more terrible warfare. In the past, the Department of the Interior has tried to play the Yurok against the Hoopa. Mark Waukchen believes that some kind of confederation will emerge to protect common fishing rights and insure the survival of all the tribes.

Unity against federal provocation will strengthen the Native American’s battle for the complete withdrawal of armed federal agents, Indian-controlled fishery regulations, and the free exercise of sovereign fishing rights.

Fish or Die

Indians say the violence seems to run in cycles, and today, with the total extinction of the salmon only a few years away, the Natives are backed against the wall.

Fishing has always meant cultural and economic survival for Northwest Coast Indians. When the fish are gone, their economic base and lifestyle will disappear, and Native fishermen will be hard-pressed to survive. Says one Indian fisherman, “They are trying to drive us out of existence by depriving us of a living.”

The future for the communal culture of indigenous peoples is grim indeed, suffocated as it is by a private profit system and threatened by a government determined to exterminate the Indian.

The sovereign Indian nations throughout the Western Hemisphere are victims of vicious white invaders: government agents, bureaucrats, and politicians; land speculators and developers; energy-hungry power company honchos; mineral and timber exploiters; owners of the floating factories of the commercial fishing fleet; raiders, spoilers, buccaneers, and mobs of racist goons eager to do the dirty work for America’s ruling class.

But the Indians are striking back, fighting as always for survival. With sturdy support from enlarged sectors of all the other oppressed and exploited and endangered legions of this continent, the Native peoples can come to taste victory in the centuries-long war to keep what has been theirs since the dawn of human culture.

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