Helena, Mont. — Almost a decade of acrimony over Indian fishing rights in Washington State is ending. Replacing it is a growing sense of cooperation between the state and Northwest Indians as they jointly attempt to manage the valuable salmon fishery that was the center of the controversy.
This is the picture painted by representatives of the state and tribes who testified here recently before the National Conference of State Legislators' Commission on State-Tribal Relations.
The Northwest fishing rights controversy flared in 1974 when US District Court Judge George Bolt decreed that the Indians in Washington State were entitled to half of the total annual salmon catch. Emotions continued high as the case was appealed. Then, just last year, the Supreme Court upheld the Bolt decision.
"While the press concentrated on the legal controversies, progress was being made outside the courtroom," maintains Frank Haw, assistant director of Washington's Department of Fisheries.
He points to several state-tribal agreements that have been finalized. Tribes and the state have agreed on cooperative efforts to double the size of the salmon fishery. When an excess number of salmon show up at a given hatchery , the Indians have agreed to harvest them and count it against their portion of the total catch.
But most important is a comprehensive management plan agreed upon by the state and the Nisqually tribe.
The Nisquallies began working with the state in 1977, explains Sue Hvalsoe of Cullen, Holm, Hoglund, and Foster, legal representative for the tribe. The agreement was finally signed by Gov. Dixy Lee Ray and the Nisqually tribe in February.
"This is the first comprehensive agreement between the state and the tribes based on general management principles," explains Miss Hvalsoe, adding, "others are now being negotiated."
The Nisquallies were the first to pursue such an agreement because they are at the southernmost end of Puget Sound. As a result, other Indian tribes and non-Indian fishermen all had the opportunity to catch the salmon before they reached the rivers of the Nisqually reservation.
"The Nisquallies reasoned that they could continue to go into court but that this would not put any salmon in their gill nets," their representative explains.
Essentially, this agreement involves management of the entire Puget Sound salmon fishery so that enough fish will make it to the Nisqually area for the Indians to harvest.
The agreement includes cooperative fish stocking and utilization of salmon eggs. It also involves construction of several fish hatcheries and a fish management training facility for the Indians.
"This has helped the state and tribe cooperate on other issues as well," Miss Hvalsoe adds. She points specifically to the fact that the two have sided in a lawsuit to maintain minimum flows over a dam on the Nisqually River.
"I am optimistic that this type of agreement can work," the lawyer says.
Mr. Haw agrees. "The state and the tribes have a strong common interest in preserving the salmon resource. The future depends on the realization of this common interest," he believes.
Although a residue of bitterness remains, these recent achievements give hope that "the head-butting contests of the past will diminish in the near future," Miss Hvalsoe says.