A Promise Made Nearly 70 Years Ago
by Bill Andrus
EMPTY NETS: Indians, Dams, and the Columbia River
By Roberta Ulrich, Oregon State University Press
The battles of American Indian tribes of the Columbia and Snake rivers to preserve and recover their right to harvest salmon has been documented in a number of books recently. This book by Ulrich, detailing their fight to force the federal government to live up to a 70-year-old promise, is an important element to understanding the often contentious issues.
Oregon State University Press has published a second edition of Ulrich's 1999 study of the decades-long struggle by the American Indians of the Columbia River to gain promised fishing sites.
When Bonneville Dam flooded Indian fishing sites in the 1930s, the tribes sought new sites to replace those flooded by Bonneville and those that would soon be flooded as new dams went in upriver.
In 1939, the Army Corps of Engineers promised to develop sites totaling 400 acres to replace flooded sites. For the next seven decades, the tribes have pushed, prodded, argued and sued in their attempts so see the promise fulfilled.
In the 1970s, the Indians had less than 10 percent of the acres promised in 1939 for sites. The few existing sites were crowded, creating problems of sanitation and contention over the existence of campsites and permanent homes for the fishers who used them.
The salmon fishery on the Columbia River has long been contentious. Figurative and literal roadblocks to the tribal fishery have been thrown up over the years by Oregon and Washington states, railroads, dam construction, commercial and recreational development and non-Indian commercial and sports fisheries.
In recent years, the Corps of Engineers has finally begun to close in on fulfilling its original promise to make 400 acres available for in-lieu fishing sites. Ulrich makes it clear, particularly in the new epilogue, that success has come only as the tribes' economic and political power increased in the last couple of decades.
During the long wait for fishing sites, the salmon runs in the river have undergone tremendous change, falling at times to critical lows and sparking often bitter debate over fish management, dams and water. Ulrich addresses the issue of in-lieu fishing sites as part of the overall picture. Indians and non-Indians alike have had to fight for the opportunity to catch the salmon that remain and to preserve the future of the fishery.
It would be a mistake to think this is a book just for those directly involved in salmon fishery and water issues. Ulrich, a former reporter for the Oregonian, writes a clear, readable and relatively objective account of a complex issue, in a style that makes good reading for the casual student of Northwest history. Her sympathies are clearly with the tribes, but for the most part she refrains from painting their opponents as villains. Indians aren't the only people with a stake in the Columbia River and its salmon, but they have the oldest claim. Still, lower river gillnetters, offshore fishers and sports fishers also can claim historic right to share in this precious resource.
There's plenty of local interest, too. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and its leaders have been in the front lines of this fight from the beginning and figure prominently in the book.
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