In the continuing tale of Billy Franks, last week in chapter three, readers read of Franks joining the military, getting married to Norma McCloud, Then, at the end of the Korean War, Frank’ release from the Marine Corps. and his time working for power companies.
We also read of the period of time known as the “Termination Era,” where 109 tribes across the country simply ceased to exist as the government closed tribal rolls and sold off the tribal land.
Even as tribal life deteriorated, so did Franks’. Drinking, that became a part of Franks’ life in the military, continued upon his return back home to Washington and Franks would suffer with addiction to alcohol for over two decades before getting treatment and swearing off of alcohol for good.
Now, Chapter Four-Surveillance
Years after a forty-two-year-old black seamstress refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama, Billy Frank Jr. refused to pull up his net in Washington. The civil rights movement accused a nation of calling one race better than another. The Northwest fishing struggle accused a country of breaking a treaty in its own backyard. Like the civil rights movement, the fishing struggle has deep roots. By the early 1960s, more than a hundred years had passed since the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty secured off-reservation fishing rights for tribes.
“We ceded all this land to the United States. . . . We made the people of this country free,” Billy told a Department of Commerce gathering in 2005. “They weren’t free. You weren’t free. The people that come out there in the state of Washington and our territory was not free. They didn’t own nothing until we ceded the land to them. Now after that, they could go to the bank, start a bank. They could start a town. But then, they didn’t honor that treaty. They didn’t honor that treaty one bit.”
When the 1960s brought diminishing fish runs, trouble stirred up on Washington riverbanks. Fisheries managers for the state called the runs “alarmingly depopulated” and “erased from the American scene.”
“What this adds up to is a tremendous threat to the fishery resources of the state,” announced John Biggs, director of the Washington Department of Game. “It’s bad for Indians and whites alike.” The feud over salmon and the sea-going steelhead trout was emotional. Fish remained critical to the tribes for ceremony and survival. Washington law prohibited them from netting steelhead, a state game fish, or from selling steelhead caught on their reservations, writes Al Ziontz in A Lawyer in Indian Country. Hook-and-line sports fishermen believed with fervor that their paid fishing license and landing fees guaranteed them first rights to the feisty steelhead trout, and they made a big and powerful voice in Washington.
Non-Indians and the state blamed the thinning runs on Indian fishermen who stretched their nets across the river mouths, where the take is especially heavy. Many Indians did not honor fishing restrictions or bag limits, believing the regulations infringed upon their treaty rights. “Indians are becoming super citizens,” groused one non-Indian. “Indians may have a right to reservation land, but under the U.S. Constitution, all individuals are forced to obey the law of the land once off the reservation.”
Billy and Native fishermen said they were taking less than 5 percent of the catch (a figure confirmed by later estimates), while non-Indians, whose boats dotted the migration path of the fish like signs on a freeway, scooped up the rest. Fishing licenses were issued liberally, and commercial fishermen aboard enormous vessels were deeply invested in the lucrative industry. “We don’t go out chasing the salmon,” Billy says. “When salmon come home . . . we have ceremonies. We have offerings. We have our religious and our cultural way of life.
“Everybody [else] was catching our fish. When they got to the Nisqually River, they’d close us down for conservation. The state of Washington would do that. They intercepted salmon as the migrations come home. By the time it got to the Nisqually River, there was no salmon left to catch. We said, ‘The hell with them!’ We started fighting to get our salmon back.” The fight and rising emotions played out in the courtroom and on the riverbank.