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Protecting Their Interests

by Julie Titone
The Spokesman-Review, December 27, 2000

Tribal sovereignty: Indians have their own view of resource management

The Nez Perce Indians are building more than a hatchery on the north shore of the Clearwater River. They’re erecting a monument to the native view of resource management.

It’s a view distinct from anyone else’s.

Some salmon hatched in the facility will be released in headwaters streams, which puts the tribe at odds with state biologists with whom they often agree on protection of endangered wild fish. The fact that the Nez Perce see the value of a hatchery at all puts them in sync with industrial river users, with whom they ardently disagree on the subject of dam removal.

”We’re going to lead,” tribal biologist Ed Larson said of the tribe’s approach. “We’re not content with following or getting out of the way.”

Indians have become major players in the natural resource arena. Their approach often differs from that of states, the federal government, business or environmental groups. It may be their most far-reaching expression of tribal sovereignty.


  • Treaty rights to harvestable levels of salmon are considered a legal trump card in the ultimate decision about whether to breach four Snake River dams. Four tribes are on record saying the dams should come out.

  • Indian interest in natural resources goes well beyond salmon and elk. Tribes investigate and comment on everything from nuclear contamination to noxious weeds, logging plans to mining waste.

  • Even the smallest tribes have their own scientists and lawyers. Those professional increasingly include Native Americans, a formidable combination of expertise and cultural attachment.

    “We Indians were put on this Earth to care for the land," Alfred Nomee, natural resources director for the Coeur d'Alenes, said at a recent meeting of Northwest tribes. “That's what's always been in my heart. That's why I've always worked in the land services and realty division."

    Nationwide, there are more than 1,000 practicing Native American attorneys. “Thirty years ago, there were probably two or three dozen," said Steven Moore of the Native American Rights Fund.

    That Colorado-based law firm provides support for tribes in major cases. The most historic was United States vs. Washington, which confirmed the Indians' treaty right to half the fish returning to the Puget Sound Basin. Leading the court battle against the tribes was Slade Gorton, then Washington state attorney general, more recently a U.S. senator.

    Law professor and author Charles Wilkinson studied the consequences of the ruling, and found the tribes taking a remarkably strong role in efforts to recover the salmon. Nearly a third of the scientists working on salmon issues, he found, are Indian.

    “They have so many people on the ground compared to the state and federal governments, which have a higher percentage (of scientists) in central offices," he said. “They're real players. They have a lot of technology, research, and a lot of pull in Congress."

    It's common for half of a tribe's employees to work in natural resources, Wilkinson said. He sees that emphasis as a response to the great losses of territory and culture suffered by Native Americans.

    “There's no pain like the pain of a land-based people who have lost their land," Wilkinson said.

    The ancestors of today's Nez Perce roamed 13 million acres. Their Idaho reservation is 750,000 acres, though they have treaty rights to hunt and fish over a much larger expanse that includes parts of Oregon and Washington.

    The Nez Perce offer an example of aggressive Indian resource management. In 1999, 31 percent of the tribe's budget was spent on natural resource programs. Some money came from profits at the tribe's Clearwater Casino, but most was from federal grants.

    Tribal resource projects often have a direct cultural link. When the tribe received land to compensate for losses it suffered when Dworshak Dam was built, it set up a trust fund to manage 60 percent as elk habitat and 40 percent for whitetail deer and otters.

    “Why river otters? Look at our regalia and you see otter skins tied into braids and adorning outfits," said tribal fisheries manager Jaime Pinkham.

    The gray wolf is another major character in Nez Perce lore and custom. So it's a great source of tribal pride to be leading recovery of the endangered species in Idaho. It was apparently the first tribe to make such an arrangement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Dairyman Chuck Overacker, who like other central Idaho ranchers has lost cattle to wolves, said he was surprised that the tribe got the federal contract.

    “But they've handled the situation fairly," Overacker said. “I think they've tried to work with us as best they could. They're protecting their own interest at the same time."

    The Fish and Wildlife Service must approve the decisions of tribal wolf recovery manager Curt Mack. But Mack believes that having some distance from the feds contributes to the success of the effort. “We have a distinct advantage because we didn't have a big `G' stamped on our forehead."

    Mack isn't an Indian, but has spent most of his career working for tribes.

    “What's refreshing is that the tribe seems to be more focused on conservation and tries harder to separate biology from politics," he said. “If you work for the (Idaho) Fish and Game, the politics surrounding endangered species conservation are so heavy that it affects day-to-day activities."

    Tribal leaders say their efforts benefit more than Indians. Nez Perce hatcheries have put far more fish in the rivers than tribal members alone can catch, said Pinkham.

    The new hatchery on the Clearwater is controversial because it will incubate salmon and then release some of the fish fry into rivers in places where wild fish would spawn. The goal is for them to return as adults to the release site, and breed on their own. The tribe already has coaxed a few coho salmon to spawn in Clearwater River tributaries after the species had disappeared in the wild. But federal and state biologists fear the process will weaken the genetic purity of the salmon.

    The Nez Perce hatchery plan underwent 13 years of scientific review before the Northwest Power Planning Council approved it.

    “Nature is in a time of crisis. Something has to be done," said Pinkham. “In order to not need this hatchery, other changes need to be done. Those four dams need to come out. We need a new Lewiston seaport strategy. The recreational industry needs to look at recovery of the ecosystem."

    Such talk rings shrill in the ears of Bruce Lovelin. He directs the Columbia River Alliance, an industry and community group that's fighting to keep the hydropower, transportation and irrigation benefits of the Snake River dams intact.

    Lovelin sees tribal sovereignty being used as “a big hammer" to knock down the dams.

    “The tribes have not really shown the statesmanship which, unfortunately, has escaped almost everyone on this issue," Lovelin said. On the other hand, “the tribes have a real answer on the hatchery issue. I think that's something we can build common ground on."

    Lovelin said Indian fishers catch too many endangered salmon in their gill nets. He'd like to see them pioneer the use of other gear that would target hatchery fish.

    The tribes say they began limiting their catch years ago to protect wild fish, and fear that focusing on fishing techniques will distract from the real problem facing salmon.

    “Mr. Lovelin's dams are not restrictive at all," said Bruce Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. “They're equal opportunity destroyers of wild and hatchery fish."

    Timing and placement of nets is approved by state and federal agencies, he said, and larger mesh is helping to reduce the catch of wild fish.

    The sight of those nets spanning the Columbia River riles some non-Indians, including Washington state Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient. He says he flew from Umatilla to Bonneville Dam and counted 398 nets in the river.

    Morton believes that technology has made the treaties outdated when it comes to fish and game harvests.

    “In those days they had vine nets and spears and bone hooks," he said. “We have nylon nets of tremendous length. We have power boats, power winches, fish locators, depth finders. In hunting, they had their gallant horse compared to the four-wheel drive today. They had bows and arrows compared to high-powered rifles with telescopic sights."

    Pinkham noted that the U.S. Constitution refers to the right to bear arms, which has come to mean a lot more than the muskets of those days. Yet few would suggest that document is outdated.

    “I'd love to rewrite the treaties and get 13 million acres back," Pinkham said. “I don't think that's what Senator Morton wants."

    Disagreement over tribal hunting and fishing rights may be eternal. But tribes are finding some common ground.

    In Oregon, the Umatilla Tribe and farmers began in 1985 to discuss how to return salmon to the Umatilla River, where they had disappeared. The irrigators agreed to water exchanges that would provide enough water for chinook and steelhead. The tribe secured state and federal funding.

    The results have been dramatic, said Fred Ziari, an engineering consultant from Hermiston, Ore.

    “We had a historical run of salmon last year and this year on the Umatilla ... There's both a tribal and a recreational fishery. It's a fantastic model of win-win for everybody."

    A similar project is planned on Salmon Creek, a tributary of Washington's Okanogan River, Ziari said. The Colville Tribe and Okanogan Irrigation District are involved.

    Bill Arthur, regional director of the Sierra Club, credits the Spokane Tribe for preventing construction of a coal-burning power plant in Creston in the 1980s. Tribal objections to air pollution slowed down the approval process, and eventually “lack of demand and lousy timing" defeated the project, he said.

    Sometimes tribes champion issues that others ignore, such as the exposure of cultural sites during reservoir drawdowns. Sometimes their concerns, such as the need to protect bull trout, are widely shared. Montana's Salish and Kootenai Indians spoke out on both issues during recent relicensing of dams on the Clark Fork River.

    Environmental groups and tribes are frequent allies, but many activists did not approve of the Makah Tribe's decision to revive whaling. Others don't share tribal enthusiasm for hatcheries, fearing “fish factories" that will detract from habitat improvements.

    The Spokane-based Lands Council cheers the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's leadership on cleaning up mining pollution.

    “They are not afraid to speak out," said staff member Michele Nanni. “They recognize the link between economic viability and the environment. You never hear other politicians speak out about that. They don't seem to get it."

    Environmentalists are less happy with the tribe's willingness to allow burning of reservation bluegrass fields, which they see as harmful to air quality. And Lands Council founder John Osborn wishes the tribe would speak out against logging-related environmental damage.

    “We've tried to get the tribe involved in dealing with the flooding problem up the North Fork, which is driving the metals up the lake (Coeur d'Alene) and into the Spokane River," he said. “I don't know if they're reluctant to take on big mining and big timber."

    Indians often set a different tone in the world of natural resource management. Many a policy and science discussion has paused while a tribal leader recounts how fishing and hunting have sustained Indians “from time immemorial," and how decisions must be based on how they will affect the next seven generations.

    “The tribes bring their values to the table," said Arthur. “It's not just, `Oh, this is an environmentally good thing.' It's `This is our culture, this is our history, this is our religion.'

    “They bring an authority and a credibility that no one else can match."

    Julie Titone
    Protecting Their Interests
    The Spokesman-Review, December 27, 2000

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