Treaty rights are civil rights | Being Frank

The tribes’ fight to preserve and protect the salmon and our treaty fishing rights has mirrored the civil rights struggle in the United States. That’s because treaty rights are civil rights — just like your right to vote — and they are protected under the U.S. Constitution.

When we were fighting for our treaty rights in the 1960s, we marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. Returning home, we continued the struggle by protesting, getting arrested, getting out of jail and starting over again.

On Sept. 9, 1970, we had a fish camp under the Puyallup River Bridge near Tacoma. The state of Washington came down on us that day, just like they had done many times before, to stop us from exercising our treaty right to fish.

They gassed us Indians and threw us all in jail.

But someone else got gassed that day too. His name was Stan Pitkin, the U.S. attorney for western Washington. He was part of the crowd that gathered to watch the event unfold. Troubled by what he witnessed, Pitkin quickly took the first steps to file the U.S. v. Washington court case that led to the 1974 Boldt decision.

With the support of the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney’s Office, we were successful in defending our treaty-reserved fishing rights. Under the Boldt decision, we were affirmed as co-managers of the salmon resource with the state of Washington. We are responsible for managing half of the salmon returning to western Washington every year.

But since the Boldt decision, we have seen a steady decline of the salmon resource. After a long, difficult battle, we are seeing our hard-won treaty rights slip away, because salmon and their habitat are being lost faster than they can be restored and the state refuses to enforce its own laws to protect the resource.

We may once again need the help of the Justice Department to protect our treaty rights.

Last summer, we launched our Treaty Rights at Risk initiative to call on the federal government to take charge of salmon recovery in western Washington. We took this strong step because we are losing the fight for the salmon. The federal government has both the obligation and authority to recover salmon and protect our treaty rights. We want the government to align its agencies and programs to lead a more coordinated effort and get us back on the path to recovery.

We are encouraged by the early response from the federal government. We all agree about the need to strengthen the tribal and federal relationship to address obstacles to salmon recovery. We’ve already developed recovery plans and identified habitat barriers in most watersheds. Now we need a commitment from the federal government to coordinate the effort to tackle the most pressing obstacles in each watershed.

In the end, that effort can only be as effective as the decisions we make and the actions we take. We sure don’t need more talk. We don’t need more process. We need action.

That’s why I think the Department of Justice needs to take a hard look at the damage being done to salmon habitat and the threat to our treaty rights. That may seem like strong medicine, but for us Indian people, nothing less than the heart of our culture is at stake.

— Billy Frank Jr. is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Members include the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and the Suquamish Tribe.


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