This is a Good Year
by Pat Ford
Two hundred years ago, in August and September 1805, Lewis and Clark crossed the Continental Divide into the Columbia River and the waters that flow to the Pacific Ocean. They crossed first on Aug. 12, on a "large and plain Indian road."
Indians of several bands offered them advice and guide service that enabled them, crossing and re-crossing, to get through the maze of mountains now forming the border of Montana and Idaho. A direct line extends from those days in 1805 to another few days 50 years later. One hundred and fifty years ago, on June 9, 11 and 25, 1855, the United States signed treaties with the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama and Warm Springs Tribes. Our nation received 35 million acres of the Columbia country in what is now Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The tribes received promises of sovereignty, religious freedom, protection from attack, health care, education, certain money, jurisdiction over reserved lands and fishing and hunting rights.
The Lewis and Clark bicentennial is getting a lot of attention. The 150th anniversary of the Columbia Treaties is getting little, despite their great consequences for our lives today. There are several reasons for this, but one is fundamental. Americans have been taught that the Lewis and Clark expedition is ours, whereas we have been taught, largely by silence, that the treaties are theirs, that they belong to the tribes. But they also belong to us, the people of the United States. We have taken possession of the land and water then given; we have no doubt those are ours. Surely 2005 is a good time to take just as full possession of the treaties as we have of the acres.
Keeping our word would be good and honorable. But there's more: We are blessed by the treaties, the unique bonds between our nation and Indian nations, the bond between Americans. The United States is a better country and the Northwest a better home because Americans and Native Americans share and reserve to one another specific places and uses in the lands we inhabit together. Just as Lewis and Clark found their way successfully in 1805 because of the people then living here, we are a better nation today because they found a long-inhabited Northwest, not an empty land.
The United States has not kept our promises well; this has hurt us as well as the tribes. I have close knowledge of one example. One hundred and fifty years after the treaties, our nation is actively dishonoring our promise that the tribes may fish "at all usual and accustomed fishing places in common with citizens." Columbia Basin salmon, whose abundance is flesh and spirit to these tribes, are threatened with extinction. Federal dams that the people own are the main agent of that destruction. Federal dam agencies that the people charter pay as little attention to our 1855 promise as they can get away with.
In May, a U.S. court found for these tribes by striking down an atrocious federal plan to "restore" salmon. Rather than sitting down with the tribes to write a lawful plan that would honor our treaties, federal agencies commenced deal-making talks with Northwest states with the tribes excluded. To her credit, Gov. Christine Gregoire withdrew from them. But the federal behavior, masked in polite words, has not changed; they have decided to fight the court and the tribes all-out, in higher courts and in Congress.
This is as bad for our nation and for us as for the tribes. Keeping our promise of abundant salmon for the tribes to fish for "in common with citizens" -- in common with us -- is good for our communities, livelihoods and economies; our bonds with one another and with our creator; ourselves and our children.
The 1805 expedition and the 1855 treaties both belong to us. We have the obligation, honor and great fruitfulness of choosing today to fully embrace both. It's a package deal, and it's a good package. Unfortunately, the current federal government will not do so. Which leaves it up to the people.
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