As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Boldt decision in U.S. v. Washington, a bill in the state legislature is trying to atone for some of the harm caused to Indian people during the Fish Wars of the 1960s and ’70s. House Bill 2080 would clear misdemeanor and certain felony convictions from the records of about 80 Indians arrested for protesting the denial of their treaty rights. The black mark of a conviction can prevent tribal members from obtaining loans, traveling internationally and adopting children.
“We as a state have a very dark past, and we need to own up to our mistakes,” says Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, one of the bill sponsors. “We made a mistake, and we should allow people to live their lives without these criminal charges on their record. Very few things are more dear to the culture of a tribe than fishing. It is a huge part of their culture, and something we stole from them.”
Sawyer is right, but most of us who were arrested and jailed were charged with civil contempt and never tried for our actions in the Fish Wars. We would fish, get arrested and often beaten, go to jail, get out, and do it again.
I was 14 the first time I was arrested for trying to exercise my treaty rights outside of the Nisqually Reservation. I lost count over the years exactly how many times I was arrested, but the longest time I spent in jail was 30 days. When you add it all up, it’s a long time to go to jail for something you believe in.
I believe we can work together to make HB 2080 better. We’d like to see it broadened to include others who were arrested and charged for exercising their treaty rights, including those who have passed away. One of those people is David Sohappy, who along with his son, David Jr., was entrapped by state and federal law enforcement in the “Salmonscam” case of the early 1980s.
Although cleared by a tribal court, the two Yakama men were sentenced to five years in a Minnesota federal prison far from their home and family on the Columbia River. Prison broke the health of David Sohappy Sr. He suffered several strokes while serving his sentence. He was released early, but died a short time later. He was 65 years old.
HB 2080 is largely symbolic, but I think it’s a start. I hope it’s a path that can lead to justice for David Sohappy and healing for all of us.
Billy Frank, Jr. is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. For more information, contact (360) 438-1180 or www.nwifc.org.