A Deeper Problem

December 26, 1854, 62 Indians, 19 white witnesses and Governor Stevens signed the She-van-name or Medicine Creek Treaty. Two of the tribes involved were the Puyallups and the Nisquallys. By terms of the treaty the Indians ceded the title to their lands, except certain parts to be held as reservations. The rights of the Indians to hunt and fish at the usual places were protected and the government paid the tribes $32,500 compensation for their land. Controversy over what is means for the Indians to “hunt and fish at the usual places” has landed several Indians in jail and has aroused the sympathy of civil rights leaders (Dick Gregory as of late) and the ire of conservationists. Just what does the treaty mean? To the Indians, it means they can fish in the streams wherever their ancestors did. To the civil authorities, conservationists, and sports fishermen, it means they can fish within the reservation. The Indians’ fishing methods are anathema to the sportsman anglers. Runabouts with outboard motors race past wading steelheaders in the Puyallup River. Gill nets stretched nearly across the river trap steelhead and salmon swimming upstream, fish that the sportsmen use rods and reels and shiny lures to catch. The Indians contend that they have to catch efficiently or they won’t get enough to eat. Conservationists say they the Indians’ fighting methods are wasteful and that they do not allow enough to go upstream to spawn and replenish the supply. Sportsmen cringe and accuse the Indians of taking an unfair advantage of the noble steelhead. The Washington State Supreme Court, in an unprecedented action, has sided with conservationists and requires the Indians to abide by the white man’s rules when fishing off the reservation. If the Medicine Creek Treaty implies, as the Indians say it does, that any manner of fishing in any of the old fishing grounds be permitted, should the red men be allowed to fish unrestricted? Or should they stick to the spirit of the treaty, as some have demanded, and fish wherever they wish as long as they fish as they did in 1854, with spears? Whichever interpretation is correct is a moot point. The current controversy has much deeper roots than the conservation of fish. America’s half million Indians are faced with numerous problems are basic: Many lack education and skills enough to earn a decent living. The Puyallups and Nisquallys must turn to fishing for they perhaps know nothing else. Conservation has for centuries been part of the Indians’ way of life. There were millions of buffalo before the white man came; there always were plenty of fish in the rivers and streams. There aren’t anymore. First, the Indians must carry their treaty rights fight to the Supreme Court. This would clear up their legal status. But this is just the first step on the road to prosperity. Positive and constructive action on the Indians’ part would do more to improve his lot than demonstrating and treaty-waving. They must widen their economic base and become financially independent if they are to share in the wealth of the nation. This cannot be accomplished without cooperation with the white man. If the Indians can achieve economic independence and their reliance on fishing for a living is eliminated, everyone will know who to blame if the steelhead runs keep getting smaller and smaller. It won’t be the Indian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *