OLYMPIA, Wash. — American Indian tribal members arrested while exercising their treaty fishing rights before 1975 would get the chance to clear their criminal records under a bill headed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.
House Bill 2080 passed the Senate unanimously Wednesday. It passed the House in February.
The measure would allow tribal members to apply to the sentencing court to expunge their related misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony convictions. Family members and tribal officials could also seek a vacated criminal record on behalf of a deceased person. The court would have the discretion to vacate the conviction, unless certain conditions apply, such as if the person was convicted for a violent crime or crime against a person.
Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said the bill corrects a mistake.
“It’s the closest this branch of government can come to an apology,” he said.
Tribal members and others were arrested in the 1960s and 1970s while asserting their right to fish for salmon off-reservation under treaties signed with the federal government more than 100 years before. At the time, however, those acts violated Washington state regulations, and there were raids by game wardens and other clashes with police. The Northwest fish-ins known as the “Fish Wars” were modeled after civil rights movement sit-ins and were part of larger demonstrations to assert American Indian rights nationwide.
Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said he knew a tribal elder who wanted to travel to Canada but couldn’t due to a felony conviction for asserting his fishing rights.
“He’s passed away but I’m sure his family members would appreciate it,” he said of the bill.
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The legislation itself might not help very many people.
A search of records by the Washington State Patrol shows that perhaps as few as 80 people still alive were arrested and convicted of state crimes related to what is now remembered as the Fish Wars.
One was Nisqually Tribe elder Billy Frank Jr.
“I was 14 years old when I first got arrested,” he told the House Community Development, Housing and Tribal Affairs Committee in Olympia on Tuesday. Frank was 14 in 1945.
The value of House Bill 2080, even for Frank, may be more symbolic than practical. By making it easier for tribal fishermen to have their records cleared, the state of Washington would be acknowledging not only that it was wrong but that it caused real harm to real people.
“This is small. This doesn’t do the times justice,” Rep. David Sawyer said of his bill. It does, however, give the state another opportunity to “own up to our own mistakes.”
“Very few things are more dear to the culture of a tribe as fishing. It is a huge part of their culture, and it’s something we stole from them,” Sawyer said.
That Sawyer, a liberal Democrat from Tacoma, would sponsor HB 2080 isn’t surprising. Some of the co-sponsors, however, might seem unexpected to those who recall the politics of the Fish Wars. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, Western Washingtonians and Eastern Washingtonians are among the 15 sponsors of the bill.
History shows that tribal members bristled under state restrictions on their fishing rights almost from the beginning of statehood. But the issue heated up after World War II when younger tribal members became more assertive.
At the same time, fish supplies were strained by environmental degradation and overfishing, and the state became more aggressive in managing the fishery. Off reservation, tribal fishermen had to follow the same regulations as nontribal fishermen, the state asserted, including limited seasons and restrictions on equipment such as gill nets.
Building slowly, the issue exploded in the 1960s when tribal members adopted tactics practiced by the black civil rights movement. Whereas blacks in the South held sit-ins to protest segregated facilities, the tribes began to hold fish-ins. Authorities often responded with arrests and harassment.
And as in the South, mainstream media paid more attention when celebrities got involved. One in particular is still revered by Puget Sound tribes.
“The greater force against you was indifference rather than the people who were hitting you all the time,” actor Marlon Brando later wrote that he told the National Indian Youth Council in 1961. “Then if you could break that indifference you could get the mass of non-Indian people on your side.”
According to “Where The Salmon Run,” by Trova Heffernan, in attendance at that Utah conference was Hank Adams, who would soon be a leader in the tribal rights movement in the Puget Sound area. When Adams heard that Brando wanted to join a fishing protest in Washington, he saw it as a way to break through white indifference. At 2 a.m. on March 2, 1964, Adams roused reporters to tell them to be on the Puyallup River near Tacoma that very morning.
Brando and Puyallup activist Bob Satiacum got into a canoe and, at least according to a game agent, took salmon from the river illegally.
Here’s how Brando described it in his autobiography: “I got in a boat with a Native American and a … priest. Someone gave us a big salmon we were supposed to have taken out of the river illegally, and, sure enough, a game warden soon arrived and arrested us.”
According to Heffernan, the fish had been purchased earlier at Johnny’s Seafood. The spot on the river is still known as Brando’s Landing.
Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory played a similar role at Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually. Unlike Brando, who was never charged, Gregory served six months in the Thurston County jail, Adams told the House committee Tuesday.
The most violent confrontation might have been along the Puyallup in September 1970. A large protest camp had been set up beneath a railroad bridge since Aug. 1. From there, tribal members continued to take fish despite state objections. After two raids mid month, the tribal leaders announced that they would arm themselves.
On the morning of Sept. 9, well-armed Tacoma police officers, along with state game and fisheries agents, broke up the camp, arresting 62 adults and 10 juveniles. Some shots were fired and tear gas was released, but there were no injuries.
The beginning of the end came in 1974 when U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt ruled that the treaties promising that the tribes could take salmon “in common” with white fisherman meant 50 percent of the catch. He also ended state restrictions on tribal fishermen. That ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979.
Frank said he lost track of how many times he was arrested, sometimes guessing at least 50 times between 1945 and Boldt’s ruling.
“That’s a long time of your life to be going to jail for something you believe in,” Frank said.
Read more here: http://www.theolympian.com/2014/01/16/2933590/peter-callaghan-bill-could-help.html#storylink=cpy
SEATTLE — Decades after American Indians were arrested for exercising treaty-protected fishing rights during a nationally watched confrontation with authorities, a proposal in the state Legislature would give those who were jailed a chance to clear their convictions from the record.
Tribal members and others were roughed up, harassed and arrested while asserting their right to fish for salmon off-reservation under treaties signed with the federal government more than a century prior. The Northwest fish-ins, which were known as the “Fish Wars” and modeled after sit-ins of the civil rights movement, were part of larger demonstrations to assert American Indian rights nationwide.
The fishing acts, however, violated state regulations at the time, and prompted raids by police and state game wardens and clashes between Indian activists and police.
Demonstrations staged across the Northwest attracted national attention, and the fishing-rights cause was taken up by celebrities such as the actor Marlon Brando, who was arrested with others in 1964 for illegal fishing from an Indian canoe on the Puyallup River. Brando was later released.
“We as a state have a very dark past, and we need to own up to our mistakes,” said Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, prime sponsor of House Bill 2080. “We made a mistake, and we should allow people to live their lives without these criminal charges on their record.”
Lawmakers in the House Community Development, Housing and Tribal Affairs Committee are hearing public testimony on the bill Tuesday afternoon.
Sawyer said he’s not sure exactly how many people would be affected by the proposal. “Even if there’s a handful it’s worth doing,” he added.
Sawyer said he took up the proposal after hearing about a tribal member who couldn’t travel to Canada because of a fishing-related felony, and about another tribal grandparent who couldn’t adopt because of a similar conviction.
Under the measure, tribal members who were arrested before 1975 could apply to the sentencing court to expunge their misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony convictions if they were exercising their treaty fishing rights. The court has the discretion to vacate the conviction, unless certain conditions apply, such as if the person was convicted for a violent crime or crime against a person, has new charges pending or other factors.
“It’s a start,” said Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal elder who figured prominently during the Fish Wars. He was arrested dozens of times. “I never kept count,” he said of his arrests.
Frank’s Landing, his family’s home along the Nisqually River north of Olympia, became a focal point for fish-ins. Frank and others continued to put their fishing nets in the river in defiance of state fishing regulations, even as game wardens watched on and cameras rolled. Documentary footage from that time shows game wardens pulling their boats to shore and confiscating nets.
One of the more dramatic raids of the time occurred on Sept. 9, 1970, when police used tear gas and clubs to arrest 60 protesters, including juveniles, who had set up an encampment that summer along the Puyallup River south of Seattle.
The demonstrations preceded the landmark federal court decision in 1974, when U.S. District Judge George Boldt reaffirmed tribal treaty rights to an equal share of harvestable catch of salmon and steelhead and established the state and tribes as co-managers of the resource. The U.S. Supreme Court later upheld the decision.
Hank Adams, a well-known longtime Indian activist who fought alongside Frank, said the bill doesn’t cover many convictions, which were civil contempt charges for violating an injunction brought against three tribes in a separate court case. He said he hoped those convictions could be included.
“We need to make certain those are covered,” said Adams, who was shot in the stomach while demonstrating and at one time spent 20 days in Thurston County Jail.
He also said he wanted to ensure that there was a process for convicted fishermen to clear their records posthumously, among other potential changes.
But Sid Mills, who was arrested during the Fish Wars, questioned the bill’s purpose.
“What good would it do to me who was arrested, sentenced and convicted? They’re trying to make themselves feel good,” he said.
“They call it fishing wars for a reason. We were fighting for our lives,” said Mills, who now lives in Yelm. “We were exercising our rights to survive as Indians and fish our traditional ways. And all of a sudden the state of Washington came down and (did) whatever they could short of shooting us.”