Indians Fondly Recall 'Caring,' Loyal Brandoby Lewis Kamb, P-I reporter
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - July 3, 2004
The fish bonanza is over; now, preserving habitat is a paramount issue
Just west of where Interstate 5 passes over the river, along a grassy bank where the Puyallup rolls into Tacoma's Commencement Bay, the man called "the greatest actor ever" played what many Northwest Indians consider the greatest role of his life.
It was 40 years ago that actor Marlon Brando stood on the waterfront here, in support of Indian treaty rights, carrying with him the weight of his stardom to propel a then much-ignored plight into what would become a worldwide cause celebre.
And in the process, Brando helped to shape Northwest history.
"We named the place where he was arrested 'Brando's Landing,' " Shirley Satiacum, 69, a Puyallup Indian recalled yesterday. "And it's still that name yet."
Yesterday, with word of the great American actor's death on Thursday at age 80, the Indians who once stood in protest with Brando during Washington's "Fish Wars" of the 1960s, remembered him not as acclaimed movie star, but as a sensitive defender of civil rights.
"Marlon Brando was the first person of non-color to step forward to help us," said SuZan Satiacum, 63, whose husband, the late Puyallup Chief Bob Satiacum, fished and was arrested with Brando during protests against what they saw as the state's trampling of Indian fishing rights.
"Marlon Brando was ahead of his time."
Remembering Brando's presence among the protests four decades ago brought both laughter and tears from Satiacum's sister, Shirley, and widow, SuZan, yesterday as they recalled a violent decade of defiance that, before the famed actor's arrival, had not gotten much attention. With the onset of the 1960s, Washington's game wardens clamped down hard on Indian fishing, arresting dozens of tribal members, often in brutal fashion. The exercise of authority over tribal fisheries came amid dwindling salmon runs and the state's attempts to conserve the resource for the non-tribal commercial and sport-fishing industries.
But the state's actions ran counter to the guarantees of Indians. Tribal treaties with the federal government that dated back more than a century guaranteed Washington's treaty tribes the right to fish and hunt on their traditional tribal lands and waters.
And so, Indians led by the Puyallup's Satiacum, and Nisqually Billy Frank Jr. mobilized, staging "fish-ins" on Northwest waters -- acts of civil disobedience during which tribal members defied a court order and risked arrest by fishing in waters deemed closed.
"All kinds of authorities were coming down to the river and attacking us," SuZan Satiacum said. "And not just the game wardens, it was anyone with a badge."
Still, the Indians had trouble gaining public support. Newspapers refused to allow the tribes to buy ads professing their rights, and public officials were slow to respond.
"Nobody -- the newspapers, TV -- nobody would want to hear what the Indians wanted to say."
That all changed when Brando accepted an invitation extended by Bob Satiacum and a public relations consultant the tribes hired to get their message heard.
On March 2, 1964, Brando walked the bank of the Puyallup with Episcopal clergyman John Yaryan from San Francisco. They boarded Satiacum's boat, set out a drift net, "and caught one little salmon," recalled SuZan, who observed the fishing from the river's bank. "But one's all it took."
When Brando, Satiacum and the minister returned to the shore, they were arrested and taken to the Pierce County Jail. The county prosecutor later refused to charge Brando, but the actor's point already had been made.
"His appearance kind of gave the Indian people more backbone," said Shirley Satiacum. "When Marlon showed up, then we knew the word was out all over town -- and it made us braver."
When Nisqually Indians later were arrested for fish-ins, Brando sent their families a $500 check. And he encouraged other celebrities to follow his lead. Actors Peter and Jane Fonda came to the Northwest, as did comedian Dick Gregory.
Still, things would get worse for tribes before they got better. Indian fishing protests in ensuing years would be marked by mass arrests, beatings, tear gas-tinged tumults and other incidents.
But in 1974, with the landmark federal court ruling known as the "Boldt Decision," fishing rights for Washington's treaty tribes would be reaffirmed, guaranteeing Indians up to half of the state's seasonal salmon and steelhead harvests.
Meanwhile, Brando continued to lend his celebrity to indigenous rights causes.
"He showed a lot of consistency and continued to contribute to tribes across the country," said Steve Robinson of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Perhaps most famously, when Brando was named the Academy Award winner for Best Actor in 1973 for his role in "The Godfather," he refused the Oscar.
He sent an actress dressed in traditional Native garb to the dais, calling herself "Sacheen Littlefeather," to proclaim Brando was rejecting the award because of "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry."
Brando later would march with American Indians on Washington, D.C., to protest federal Indian policies, and narrate an Oscar-nominated documentary about South American Indians, among other acts.
He once told a Newsweek magazine reporter in 1972:
"Christ Almighty, look at what we did in the name of democracy to the American Indian. We just excised him from the human race. We had 400 treaties with the Indians and we broke every one of them."In the same interview, Brando described Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson from Washington as "perhaps the blackest figure in Indian history, who votes against giving the Indians back the lakes and fishing rights that treaties clearly entitled them to."
And that's how SuZan Satiacum said she and others should remember Marlon Brando.
"He was a caring person, a very conscientious person," SuZan Satiacum said. "Marlon Brando had a loving heart. We'll always be grateful to him."
Sacheen Littlefeather Refuses Brando's Oscar, 3/27/73
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs