In 1960, Joe McCoy, a Swinomish Indian, was charged with fishing when the Skagit River was closed. One hundred people crowded into the courtroom to hear his case. “A few individual fishermen unregulated on the Skagit could definitely destroy its salmon runs,” declared Edward Mains, assistant director of the Washington Fisheries Department. “By gillnet they could take up to 98 percent of a run.” Mains considered unregulated Indian fisheries an “endless chain” and the “weakest link” in the state’s salmon fisheries. McCoy’s attorney argued and convinced the lower court that the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty trumped fishing regulations.
The Washington State Supreme Court, however, disagreed and ruled, “None of the signatories of the original treaty contemplated fishing with a 600-foot nylon gill net which could prevent the escapement of any fish for spawning purposes.” The state court decision authorized Washington State to regulate Indian fishing, provided its intent was to conserve fish runs. Thor Tollefson, head of Fisheries for the state and a former congressman, pushed to abrogate treaties and pay off tribes. “The treaty must be broken,” he said. “That’s what happens when progress pushes forward.”
The McCoy decision touched off an uproar in the winter of 1963. At Frank’s Landing, fishermen held an emergency meeting and then protested at the Capitol two days before Christmas. Janet McCloud, outspoken activist and wife of Don McCloud, led the “No Salmon, No Santa” campaign. As protestors waved their picket signs, McCloud accused the judge of kidnapping the holiday. “He’s making law where he has no right to! Our aboriginal rights were granted to us under the treaties of the nineteenth century with the U.S. government. The only court that can change them is the United States Supreme Court. . . . There will be no Christmas for many of us.”
The state’s progressive chief executive, Albert Rosellini, welcomed the protesters for a face-to-face meeting, but quickly sent them off. “Nice to hear your problems, come back again,” the governor said.
Billy recalls his frustration at the time. “‘You could fish on the reservation,’ they said. Piss on you. We’re not fishing on the reservation. We don’t live on the reservation. And so the Bureau of Indian Affairs, you name it, everybody was against us, even our own tribe. But that didn’t stop us. We just kept on going.”
The fishing struggle played out most dramatically on the riverbank. In the early 1960s, Washington State officers, in power boats and on foot, began surveillance of Native fishermen. Eventually the state confiscated Indian gear and won court orders prohibiting Indian net fishing in the Puyallup, Nisqually, and other rivers.
In the winter of 1962, as the late chum run darted upstream to Muck Creek, dozens of officers surrounded Frank’s Landing in a major raid. A spotter plane swooped overhead. Authorities made a half-dozen arrests and bold accusations. The fishermen are not Nisqually Indians, the Game Department charged. Billy, then vice chairman of the tribe, attempted to prove the identity of Indian fishermen through a stack of affidavits.
Identifying treaty Indians proved difficult for state officers. John Biggs, director of the state Game Department, demanded clarification of treaty language and a definitive list of Indians enrolled in treaty tribes. “Anyone who thinks he is an Indian is taking the fish— not to eat, but to take down to Portland and sell,” Biggs accused.
Meantime, angry whites were starting to take matters into their own hands, warned Walter Neubrech, head of enforcement at the Game Department. They tore down an Indian net in force. According to the Seattle Times, “Fist fights” broke out on the Puyallup River, and “some of them are now packing shotguns.”
After the arrests at the Landing, the Nisqually Tribe passed resolutions to ban whites from fishing the stretch of the river that cuts a swath through the reservation. In March 1962, the tribes had attempted to form their own inter tribal fish commission to work through the struggle, but it never got off the ground.
In 1963, the headline “Skagits on Warpath?” appeared in the Seattle Times. “They [the Indians] have been crowding us,” Neubrech reported to the seven-member game commission. “They’ve threatened us and there has been some bodily contact with some of our people.”