On May 18, 1988, tribal fishing activist and U.S. military veteran David Sohappy Sr. (1925-1991) is released on federal parole from the Geiger Corrections Center in Spokane. With his son, Sohappy has served three years of the five-year sentence imposed following their 1983 conviction in federal court for selling salmon out of season. During his three years of incarceration, Sohappy has been transferred to prisons in California, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Washington, and has suffered a debilitating stroke. U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye (1924-2012) of Hawaii, visiting him in Spokane, agrees with Sohappy attorney's Tom Keefe and with the four U.S. senators in Oregon and Washington that the Sohappys' imprisonment is disproportionate. The federal government, responding to pressure from Inouye and others, releases him on parole and Sohappy returns to his Wanapum community, a man much altered by his incarceration. He will die three years later.
Taking Action in Support of Treaty Rights
David Sohappy was a member of the Wanapum band. He lived on and near the Yakama Indian Reservation in Central Washington. He became known for fighting against state and federal laws that attempted to limit or regulate tribal fishing. He saw those laws as interfering with his right to catch salmon on the Columbia River to support his family and community. Legal decisions eventually supported his interpretation of his people's treaty rights.
Long before Sohappy and his family settled on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge at the Native fishing site known as Cook's Landing, law-enforcement officials had been confiscating fish and equipment from tribespeople for exceeding state fishing regulations on the Columbia River. In the view of Sohappy and many others, those confiscations violated the 1855 Yakama Treaty (which included the Wanapum people, although no one from that band signed it). The treaty conferred both "the exclusive right of taking fish in all the streams, where running through or bordering said reservation," as well as the right "of taking fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations" beyond the reservation boundaries, "in common with" non-tribal members ("Treaty with the Yakama, 1855").
Following confiscations, harassment, and arrest, David Sohappy, his relative Richard Sohappy, and 12 of their fellow fishers took action in 1968 by filing a lawsuit, Sohappy v. Smith, against commissioner McKee Smith, the rest of the Oregon Fish Commission, and other state officials. Their goal was to achieve fair fishing privileges for tribal members as provided in the Yakama Treaty. The federal government agreed with the Indian plaintiffs and filed its own case against the state, United States v. Oregon.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Belloni (1919-1999) heard the consolidated case and in 1969 made several rulings in favor of the tribal fishermen. He ruled first that they should be allowed to continue fishing along the Columbia River as they had before. Second, he defined, albeit loosely, the ways in which the state would be allowed to regulate tribal fishing: imposing only regulations that would effectively conserve the river's resources. Belloni also required the state to modify its regulations so that tribal fishers would receive a "fair and equitable share" of the river's salmon runs (322 F.Supp at 907-08).
This ruling displeased commercial and sport-fishing communities in the Pacific Northwest. Tensions between those communities and tribal fishers deepened and continued for years. In 1974, U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt (1903-1984) issued his landmark ruling in United States v. Washington (which came to be known as the Boldt Decision), expanding upon Belloni's 1969 ruling and holding that the treaty right to take fish at "usual and accustomed grounds and stations ... in common with" non-Indians meant tribal fishers should be allocated half of the harvestable yearly catch (384 F.Supp. at 343).
Although a major victory for the tribes, the Boldt Decision did not end state or federal government attempts to regulate tribal fishing. In 1982, the National Marine Fisheries Service conducted a sting operation, later known as Salmon Scam, which ultimately led to the arrests of 75 tribal fishers, including David Sohappy and his son David Jr. The agents claimed that the arrested Indians had exceeded tribal and state limits by catching and selling 53 tons of salmon illegally over the course of 14 months. The Sohappys, father and son, convicted of selling some 300 of those fish out of season, were sentenced in 1983 to five years in prison.
David Sohappy Sr., represented by attorney Thomas Keefe Jr., appealed the sentence. Sohappy's wife Myra even took the case to the United Nations Human Rights Panel in Geneva, Switzerland. The appeals failed, and in 1985 Sohappy had to report to a federal prison in California. Over the next three years, he and his son were transported to prisons in Oklahoma, Minnesota, and finally back to Washington, where they were placed in the Geiger Corrections Center in Spokane. Tom Keefe, Sohappy's attorney, protested in 1987 that "The federal government came for him twice," first when he was drafted into the army, then again when it violated the 1855 treaty and arrested him for fishing ("David Sohappy, Sr. ...").
Sohappy suffered a stroke in the Geiger Corrections Center and his health began to deteriorate. Senator Inouye, then Chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, took notice of the sentence following Sohappy's stroke. Inouye arrived at the corrections center on March 6, 1988, and met father and son. He found their treatment to be disproportionate to their crime. Later, with the help of Senator Dan Evans (b. 1925) of Washington, along with the state's junior senator, Brock Adams (1927-2004), and both U.S. senators from Oregon, Inouye persuaded the federal government to grant the Sohappys parole and early release.
On May 18, 1988, David Sohappy left Geiger Corrections Center to return to his home at Cook's Landing, but his struggles with the government were not over. Even before his release, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was working to evict the Sohappys and others living at Cook's Landing. The Native American residents would eventually prevail, but the legal battle was still going on when David Sohappy Sr. died on May 6, 1991, as a result of the health problems and stroke he suffered in prison.