The more that Roberta Ulrich learned about the continuing string of broken government promises to the Native Americans who lived and fished along the Columbia River for centuries, the angrier she got. So she turned to her biggest, most potent weapon: the written word.
“I guess the reason I wrote the book is outrage,” Ulrich, a former reporter for United Press International and The Oregonian, told a lecture audience at The High Desert Museum (http://www.highdesert.org) Monday night before autographing copies of “Empty Nets: Indians, Dams and the Columbia River.”
The promise made in 1939 to the native people along the Columbia – of a replacement for the land they would lose to the mighty dams that flooded their homeland – may finally be fulfilled by 2004, 65 years later, she said, no thanks to the “apathy, negligence and inertia by the federal government” on the matter.
Ulrich, who lives in Beaverton, first covered the eviction of Indians from the “in-lieu sites” provided by the government in the mid-1970s. Even then, only five sites totaling 40 acres had been provided, compared to the 400 acres promised decades earlier. Ulrich said she “got madder” when the federal government tried to evict David Sohappy from an “in-lieu” site and send him to prison.
A master’s thesis at Portland State University led Ulrich to study federal documents that got her “six times more outraged,” eventually leading her to the book, which focused largely on getting the Indians’ side of the story.
The Native Americans had been living along the Columbia and fishing for salmon for thousands of years. “Salmon really was at the center of their culture,” used as trading currency and in a host of cultural ceremonies, from the naming of babies to death rituals. “Vital doesn’t even begin to say it,” Ulrich said. “The salmon and the people were almost as one.”
From proud fishermen to dump truck deliveries of dead hatchery fish
When the federal government forced Indians off the land, they promised in treaties that the tribes “could fish, hunt and gather in the usual and accustomed places,” Ulrich said. Even today, she said, Indians eat nine times as much salmon as the average Northwest resident.
When the Bureau of Indian Affairs figured out in 1937 that the dams would flood the Indians’ homes and fishing spots, the government agreed to provide a half-dozen replacement sites totaling 400 acres. But then, as the threat of war involvement grew, appropriations to fund the creation of those sites were vetoed as money shifted to defense budgets. Later, when The Dalles Dam was being considered, the Interior Department – parent agency of both the BIA and the Bonneville Power Administration – weighed the various fisheries against the benefits of power production and decided “the salmon run must, if necessary, be sacrificed” for the power, Ulrich said.
The feds tried to make up for the lost fishing grounds by providing dead, spawned-out salmon from hatcheries, but Ulrich said that couldn’t take the place of the life that went with the fishing. She read the recollections of a man who watched as his father and other proud Indians lost their dignity, standing in a circle as a truck dumped the hatchery salmon at their feet.
By 1963, five “in-lieu” sites had been finished. “Then they quit trying,” Ulrich said. And the promises of those sites aid nothing about replacing the tribes’ destroyed housing, something the Indians had presumed would be done. Drying sheds built by the Corps of Engineers were so badly planned – they burned the fish, for example – that Indian families, “being practical people,” instead moved into the cement-floored, corrugated metal sheds, Ulrich said.
When the salmon runs began to dwindle in the face of the dams, the Indians were blamed – even though they only were catching about 3 percent of the runs, Ulrich said. Sohappy filed suit in federal court, first winning a ruling that the Indians were entitled to a “fair share of the catch” – then, when Washington state kept arresting Indians, another judge defined their “fair share” as half of the runs. “That really set things off,” Ulrich said.
In the 1980s, in a fish “sting” that became known as “Salmon Scam,” Sohappy was sentenced to five years in prison for selling 128 illegally caught fish. His son, David Sohappy Jr., went to prison for five years for selling 15 fish. And yet, a coastal case in which 100 tons of salmon were sold illegally was handled with a civil fine, Ulrich said.
Feds finally agree to fulfill long-delayed promise
The legal effort to evict the Indians eventually was thrown out on appeal by a court which ruled that “after 20 years, they couldn’t throw people off the land,” she said. Unfortunately, Sohappy Sr. had died five months earlier. Sohappy had submitted a statement to a U.S. Senate hearing that said, in part, “I want my children and their children to know, I did not get equal justice under the law.”
A new law, passed in 1988, provides the Indians with 23 fishing sites along the river, “finally close to the 400 acres” promised decades ago, Ulrich said. Meanwhile, the federal government has provided more than 950 acres to states, counties and cities along the river, for use in creating parks.
Some might think mistreatment of Native Americans is in the past – “we don’t do that any more,” Ulrich said. But the Washington Republican Party passed a resolution recently that urged Indians be “forcibly assimilated” and that reservations be abolished.
Recently, several Northwest Indian tribes – but not Central Oregon’s Warm Springs – sponsored a full-page ad in The Oregonian, endorsing the Gore-Lieberman presidential ticket. Bend.com’s call for comment to the Warm Springs tribal officials was not returned, but Ulrich, the first Oregonian reporter put on the Native American beat, wasn’t surprised, noting that the Warm Springs prefer negotiation to political fights and have been extremely successful in such negotiations.
The Indians had been promised that fish ladders would protect the salmon, but Ulrich said no one now doubts the harm the dams have done. She said the tribal members refer to the long pool at the John Day dam, where the water warms so much, as a “fish killer.”
Even though the tribes at times don’t even have enough salmon to meet their cultural needs, they “still invite all of the public” to special events. But most of the young people have had to move on, and the fishing seasons are so short, most tribal members have to hold full time jobs to survive, away from the river of their ancestors.
“It’s heartbreaking to see,” Ulrich said.
Ulrich’s speech was one of a series of events to mark The High Desert Museum’s new exhibit of the photos and essays of Pulitzer Prize finalist Natalie Forbes, “Reaching Home: Pacific Salmon, Pacific People,” which continues through Jan. 14. On Thursday at 7 p.m., Courtland Smith, a professor of anthropology at Oregon State University, speaks about the growth and decline of the once dominant canned salmon industry on the Columbia, in a lecture entitled, “Fish or Cut Bait.”