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SALMONOMICS. In a clash of cultures, Indians and whites angle for an expensive fish

By TextR. Norman Matheny / September 24, 1985



Bridge of the Gods, Oregon

ALONG the Columbia River and into the Pacific, the salmon is a predictable and popular fish. But when two cultures pursue it, this creature of both salt and fresh water becomes tangled in an economic and legal web.

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To the four Indian tribes along the Columbia (Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakima), fishing for salmon with simple nets and poles is a livelihood, a way of life, a tradition.

Says Michael Hunt, a member of the Umatilla Indian tribe: `` We should have $l00,000 houses, and four-wheel drives, but they don't want us to get that much. They don't want us here . . . the [white] fishermen, the government, . . . nobody. People are trying to rip off our rights everyday.''

To commerical and sports fishermen, both on the river and along the coast, pursuit of salmon is done with large boats and large equipment, for fun or for profit. The most popular salmon variety -- the chinook -- brings nearly $3 a pound wholesale.

The two cultures have clashed over the years, not only between themselves, but with government and with dams that can block the salmon's upriver and downriver migrations. Each group wants fishing seasons tailored to its advantage.

In 1974, a federal judge ordered that the tribes be allowed to take half the harvestable portion of salmon, based on 19th-century treaties. Since then, new hatcheries, fishladders, and other steps have boosted the population of the steelhead salmon. After that decision, however, many more battles broke out between federal, Indian, and state fish regulators.

In the late 1970s, offshore salmon fishing came under tight regulation, resulting in an abrupt reduction of the fleets that troll for ocean salmon. Commercial fisherman Dickie Marila complains about the new rules: ``It's not the Indians. It's all these regulations. Trollers are a thing of the past.''

Federal and state authorities have charged many Indians with poaching, saying they are selling fish outside the official commercial season. They are allowed to catch salmon for ceremony or food without restriction.

``The state has come down pretty hard on all of us here,'' says Indian fisherman Richard Moore as he nets jumping salmon from the Klickatat River. His companion across this Columbia tributary is due in court soon on poaching charges. Overlooking the scene, a non-Indian fisherman comments: ``I don't know how long we can have two cultures with two sets of regulations after the same thing.''