Usual & Accustomed Places III – The Depression, The New Deal, & the Indian Reawakening

The relationship between the original inhabitants of Washington and the non-Indians who started arriving in the late 18th century is one of the great ongoing stories of this state’s history. The impact of trade, disease, culture, conflict, and law on Native Americans from this region tells us a lot about our nation and ourselves. The following is an examination of the struggle between Indians and non-Indians over the right to fish for salmon, one of the great natural resources of the Northwest.


This section of the struggle over fishing in Washington covers the era of the depression and World War II. Both of these events profoundly shaped the course of fishing rights and tribal history in this state.


Fishing in the state would next be influenced by political events shaped by the forces of the depression that struck the U.S. in the early 1930s. Unemployment in Seattle reached 23% in 1931 where some 12,000 people were without work. Mills all around the state were shutting down or cutting back wages and hours. The 1932 salmon pack (the measurement of canned salmon) was 120,000,000 pounds under that of 1929. Not surprisingly many ideas gained credence for solving this increased lack of work. Also, large businesses, corporations, and the wealthy in general became the targets of the public anger about the lack of work.

In the world of Washington fishing this anger was aimed at the fish wheel and fish trap operators. In the minds of some people these enterprises which relied heavily on technology and required few people to operate were taking jobs away from honest workers. Using the initiative process, backers of Initiative 77 obtained enough signatures on their measure to put it on the ballot in 1934 where it would be up to the public to vote on whether or not to eliminate all fish wheels, traps, beach seines, and set nets from use in the state. The measure also would close certain parts of Puget Sound to all commercial fishing except by Native Americans. The initiative received its strongest support from purse seine operators who were in competition with fish wheel and trap operators. Also, sport fishermen, who had earlier supported the move to make the steelhead a “sport” fish supported the initiative idea.

Proponents of the bill made many arguments in favor of Initiative 77. The following comments come from newspaper articles supporting the initiative. Think carefully about whether you would have believed each argument.

  1. The measure provides for the perpetuation of the salmon fishery and will save Washington’s third largest industry. It will rehabilitate the run of king and silver salmon in Puget Sound as fish traps take the larger share of these species.
  2. It will establish Puget Sound as a sport fishermen’s paradise by the protections offered the two important species of salmon. It will give the great salmon fishing industry back to the people instead of leaving it in the hands of a financially powerful minority.
  3. Purse seine boats . . . in the open waters employ eight men to the boat, whereas each trap employs an average of two men.
  4. [Initiative 77 will bring] hundreds of thousands of dollars to many diversified lines of trade from tourists who now do their salmon fishing in Canada and Alaska because Puget Sound is fished out.
  5. It would enhance property values through the entire 2,000 miles of shoreline on Puget Sound
  6. Trap sites are obtained for a fee of only $50 per year to the state and can be held perpetually.
  7. Give this great natural resource back to the people instead of leaving it in the hands of a powerful financial minority involving large interests of Eastern and California capital.
  8. Initiative No. 77 is a fight between thousands of . . . citizens of this state [and] a mere handful of wealthy fish barons.
  9. It will bring profitable employment to a minimum of 30,000 citizens of this state with runs of salmon built back to the 1913 level. It will permit these 30,000 citizens to share equally in their rightful ownership of the great salmon runs, because these runs belong to all the people, and not a small group of wealthy fish trap owners.

Opponents of the measure didn’t have chance. The measure could not possibly increase salmon sales because the nation was in the midst of a depression. Thirty thousand jobs were not going to appear overnight. Salmon weren’t going to be saved; on the contrary, under Initiative 77 purse seiners and sport fishermen were actually going to catch more. Tourists were not going to flock to this “fishermen’s paradise” because people out of work during a depression don’t go on vacations. Even so, the measure passed overwhelmingly with over 131,000 votes in favor and only 76,000 against.

As originally written the initiative was not to apply to Indian fishing, but within a few years sports clubs started demanding state action against Indians who, in their words, were fishing in “defiance” of the law. This “defiance” was merely the Indians fishing with their traditional methods in accordance with the law which did not regulate them. The sport fishermen went even further stating that the state should arrest all “young bucks” because the Indians “were infringing on state rights. The state is not infringing on the privileges of Indians.” The sport fishermen even turned to the U.S. Congress to prohibit Indian trapping. Sportsmen accused Washington Indians of committing a “depraved and callous slaughter” of salmon and that the tribes should be forced to “observe the principles of conservation.” The sportsmen even argued that Indian fish traps caught more fish in a single haul than sportsmen would catch in the same stream in an entire season.


User Group Chinook Coho Chum Sockeye Humpback
Purse Seines 29 61 80 80 79
Gill Nets 58 31 16 5 14
Reef Nets 2 4 * 5 4
Trollers * 1 *
Indians 10 3 3 <1 2
          * Less Than 1
In the Swindell Report on fishing in the state the author wrote:

The measure known as Initiative 77 had as its commendable object, the conservation of the declining fish migrations and, of course, was not primarily directed at the Indian fishery. However, its passage constituted a serious blow to the Indian fishery being carried on at usual and accustomed grounds since due to their extremely limited financial means their gear necessarily must be obtainable at a minimum of expense. Generally speaking, the Indians were unable to finance the purchase of other more expensive gear and operating equipment, the use of which was not entirely outlawed. In order to continue to provide the necessities of life, the Indians, as a result of the above conservation statute, were literally forced to confine their fishing with such gear to reservation waters. The fact that such was the situation led to considerable agitation in the Pacific Northwest and especially in the state of Washington looking to the further curtailment of the Indians’ commercial fishery.

During these decades there were dozens of individual dramas as tribes appealed to the government for fairness or as individual Indians continued to fish and were arrested. One of the latter was Sampson Tulee who, in the state of Washington’s eyes, used an outlawed dip net and was also fishing without a license when he was arrested in 1939. He was accused and convicted of violating state law in the county court and lost his appeal at the state supreme court. From the state Supreme Court he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court claiming that the Yakama Treaty of 1855 protected his right to fish without following state law.

In its 1942 decision in Tulee vs. Washington the Supreme Court held that the treaties between the tribes and the federal government remained in effect after Washington became a state and that Sampson Tulee did not require a state fishing license in order to fish off reservation. The state had argued that a fishing license was one method they used to protect and conserve salmon, but the court stated that there were better ways to accomplish this goal. The court wrote:

Even though this method may be both convenient and, in its general impact fair, it acts upon the Indians as a charge for exercising the very right their ancestors intended to reserve. We believe that such an exaction of fees (a fishing license) as a prerequisite to the enjoyment of fishing in the “usual and accustomed places” cannot be reconciled with a fair construction of the treaty. We therefore hold the state statute invalid as applied in this case.

But earlier in this decision the court wrote that “the imposition of fees is not indispensable to the effectiveness of a state conservation program.” This meant that court might tolerate other types of state restrictions placed on off-reservation Indian fishing. This was more clearly spelled out when the justices wrote: “the treaty leaves the State with the power to impose on Indians equally with others such restrictions of a purely regulatory nature concerning the time and the manner of fishing outside the reservations necessary for the conservation of fish.” The state of Washington would use this latter language as a justification for continued restrictions on Indian fishing in the state, and the stage was set for the next round of the fishing conflict of Washington.


The administration of Franklin Roosevelt from 1933-45 was a pivotal point for Indian tribes in this nation. Under the Wheeler-Howard Act tribes were encouraged to organize themselves, write their own tribal constitutions, and increasingly govern themselves. Native Americans were brought into some of the New Deal work programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps. Others found jobs in the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the new tribal governments that were established, and more Native Americans went to college. With the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 much of the money dried up for the above programs, but the experience of World War II altered the consciousness of Indians who participated in the war effort. Nationwide 25,000 Indians served in the armed forces and another 50,000 worked in the defense industry. As in the case of African-Americans who served in similar roles, these Native Americans would act as agents of change with their local communities.

This new consciousness, however, ran headlong into renewed federal efforts to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American culture. During the Eisenhower Administration of the 1950s a policy of tribal “termination” was proposed. According to this policy, the government would put an end to the legal idea of a tribe. Reservations would no longer exist. Property and other assets owned by tribes would simply be divided up among the individual Indians. And Indians, who once were part of a tribe and tribal law, would now be governed only by the laws of the cities, counties and states in which they lived. Two tribes were actually “terminated” under this policy: the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin and the Klamath tribe in Oregon. Most Indians and tribes were shocked and angry at this idea. Even though the US government had broken many treaties and promises in the past, tribes knew that, if they were terminated, the state governments would treat them even worse. Even the U.S. Supreme Court had once identified the states as the “deadliest enemies” of Native Americans. When looking back at the history of fishing in this state, the Indians of Washington could only feel pessimistic about their future under a policy of termination. Termination, however, did not become standard policy and eventually was killed by President Nixon, but its unintended result was to help spur Indians to reassert their rights and tribal identities even more. In Washington this would take place in the streams and rivers of the state.

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