As a treaty-rights activist and tribal entrepreneur, Robert Satiacum's influence and notoriety spread far beyond his Puyallup Tribe. He was first known as a local athlete and then, along with family members, for his frequent and public defiance of restrictive state fishing regulations. His many court cases helped develop the arguments eventually adjudicated in United States v State of Washington, better known as the Boldt Decision, which clarified the fishing rights of treaty tribes in Washington. As he branched out into other businesses that tested the limits of treaty provisions, he became an increasingly polarizing figure. His conviction on racketeering and other charges in 1982 looked like government persecution from one side, and an overdue correction from another. His flight to Canada and eventual granting of refugee status there generated another set of discussions about the status of tribal members in both countries.
Inheriting a Quest
By carrying the Satiacum name, Robert was already heir to a legacy of activism and frustration concerning Tribal rights. Charley (or Charlie) Satiacum (1819?-1921) was present at the Treaty of Medicine Creek and spent much of the rest of his long life trying to secure land and representation for Duwamish and Puyallup people. He was either Robert's grandfather or great-grandfather; statements vary.
In 1893, the elder Satiacum was a member of a 12-man committee chosen by the tribes to report to a government commission on Native land ownership. Congressional action on land rights hinged on the commissioners' report, and the Indians believed they were stalling on purpose. Frustrated because the commissioners wouldn't schedule a meeting, Satiacum and his fellow members went to the press. "They don't seem to want to meet us," Marcellus Spott (d. 1903) told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "but rather go around the back way and catch us one at a time" ("They Won't Meet ...").
The practices of ignoring, cajoling, or coercing Native Americans into land transactions was common in Tacoma as elsewhere. When another Satiacum of the time, an often-arrested teenager named Peter, committed suicide in his Mason County jail cell in 1905, he had a one-third interest in a parcel of land valued at more than $5,000. When his estate went to probate, Simon and Carl Mettler (1862-1938), brothers from Switzerland who ran a dairy in Fife, produced a warranty deed claiming that the land was to be conveyed to them for $1,325. Jerry Meeker (1862-1955), a Puyallup Tribe member who was the administrator for Peter's estate, pointed out that the deed was not signed and, even if it had been, Satiacum had been too young to make a contract. Meeker asked that the deed be revoked and the property given to Satiacum's family. In an illustration of the attitudes of the time, the court denied Meeker's petition on the grounds that Satiacum had allegedly told the Mettlers he was of age.
Charley Satiacum was still campaigning for the rights to more land in his last years: "I will forget the lies the government has told to me many times, if the government will only now settle with the younger members of my race and of my tribe," he said in an affidavit dated April 1915. "There are yet quite a few old members of my tribe who have not been settled with and they need some land to live on ... Governor Stevens told us that the white man's government was honest: now let the white man's government prove. They promised us lands, give us some land. Don't give all of the land to people from other countries; they do not farm their lands either. They just buy and hold the lands ..." ("Federal Acknowledgment ...").
On February 23, 1916, Scripps correspondent Fred Jungmeyer wrote with admiration and condescension about Satiacum's appearance at a gathering of the Northwestern Federation of Indians in Tacoma: "The patriarchs understood little of this strange talk about Congress, resolutions and courts. But once Satiacum rose and quavered a prayer of his fathers before the hushed assembly. After 61 years of bitter waiting, his voice still rang with hope" ("Scraps of Paper? …").
Determined to Fish
Bob Satiacum was born eight years after Charley Satiacum's death, to Ara (1904-1994) and Chester Satiacum (1903-1954). Athletic, energetic, and charismatic, he began to get coverage on his own account by his teen years, first as an athlete and performer at Chemewa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. Forty years later, in his request for refugee status in Canada, he said he was forced to attend Chemawa and that his treatment there was brutal, "a way of taming the savages" ("Satiacum: 'I'm Like Superman …'").
When he returned to Tacoma, Satiacum entered Lincoln High School, where he was a three-sport athlete until his graduation in 1947. After that he played for Native American teams around the region, continuing to garner press coverage as a basketball player and boxer. By the late 1940s he was also fishing for salmon and steelhead in the Puyallup's traditional waters. He married Myrtle Butler (d. 2004) and over the next several years they had five children.
Although the Treaty of Medicine Creek gave the Puyallups the right to fish "in common" on their traditional grounds, there was no legal consensus on what that meant for tribe members. The State of Washington claimed the right to regulate fisheries both on and off the reservations and clearly prioritized the claims of non-Native commercial and sports fishing. People who wanted to set their nets without risking arrest and forfeiture of their boats and gear often had to so do in secret.
On the Puyallup River, cleared of much of its natural cover and crossed by many bridges, it was hard to avoid being seen, even when fishing at night. By the 1950s, some tribe members had decided to court arrest and start making their cases in court. Satiacum was an early adopter of using illegal fishing to make a point. His first publicized fishing arrest was in 1954, when he was 25.
Satiacum and James Young, who was 20 at the time, set their nets by the Milwaukee Railroad bridge near the mouth of the Puyallup at Commencement Bay, knowing they were likely to be seen. They were promptly arrested for illegal fishing and improper possession of fish. To underscore the cultural conflicts at play, the reporter for the The News Tribune in Tacoma noted that all three attorneys for the prosecution at their trial were descendants of Croatian fishermen: John "Jack" Petrich (1919-2010), Joseph T. Mijich (1925-2022), and Richard Broz (1928?-2002).
Satiacum and Young were found guilty on January 26, 1955, by Justice of the Peace Waldo Stone (1923-2017). Their attorneys, Wing Luke (1925-1965), later the first Chinese American elected to the Seattle City Council, and Malcolm McLeod immediately filed notice of appeal. In May the state asked for and was granted a mistrial based on some jury members having been aware of the "secret desires" ("Mistrial ...") of Satiacum and Young that the case go all the way to the supreme court. A new trial was granted.
A few months later, on October 5, all charges were dropped by Judge Hardyn Soule (1916-2010) on the grounds that the state had not proven that the laws allegedly violated were reasonable in light of the treaty. This time it was the state's turn to appeal, and the matter did go to the Washington State Supreme Court, which ruled in Satiacum and Young's favor on July 1, 1957. The ruling was narrow and did not make a general conclusion on the right of the state to regulate tribal fishing in general. Tribal members continued to fish, both on and off the reservation, and the state continued to argue that the treaties did not give Indians any special rights to catch fish in places or by methods not available to non-tribal commercial or sports fishermen.
"We're Going Public With Our Story"
In 1964 the tribes, on the advice of a public-relations consultant, came up with a way to raise the profile of the fishing-rights campaign. Alvin Ziontz (1928-2023), a Seattle lawyer, recalled in his memoir, A Lawyer in Indian Country, that he got a call from Bruce Wilkie (1938-1978), a Makah Tribe member, who asked if he would represent them in a new kind of action. "A lot of us feel the state is never going to honor our treaty rights unless they're forced to," Ziontz remembered Wilkie saying:
"They've put the Indian in a bad light; they call us poachers and they ignore our treaty. We've gone to the BIA, but they don't want to tangle with the state. So we decided to take matters into our own hands. Hank Adams (1943-2020), a Quinault [he was actually Asinaboin Sioux] friend of mine, had been working with me on this and we've got a plan. We call it 'public awareness.' We're going to go public with our story. We're going to demonstrate on the rivers and let them arrest us like they always do. But this time we're going to try to have some celebrities with us" (Ziontz, 49-50).
A month later, Ziontz got a call that Marlon Brando had agreed to come for a "fish-in" with Satiacum. With hundreds of reporters, supporters, and law enforcement lining the Puyallup River Bridge (since renamed the Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge) and riverbanks on the morning of March 2, 1964, Brando climbed into Satiacum's boat along with Episcopal Canon John Yaryan (1915-1999) and set out a drift net. They caught "one little salmon," Suzanne Satiacum told Seattle P-I reporter Lewis Kamb, "but that was all it took" ("Indians Fondly Recall …"). In fact, according to Ziontz, the salmon had been planted to assure that there was something to record.
Back at shore, the actor and the cleric were arrested, booked, and released without charge. Prosecutor John G. McCutcheon said he would not allow them to "make martyrs of themselves" ("Five Indians in Jail"). Photos of a smiling Brando in the canoe and then toting the fish went around the country. More fish-ins followed, several of them at Frank's Landing on the Nisqually River. Documentation of violence by state officers, some of it directed at women and children, brought more sympathizers to the Indians' cause.
The fight moved on through courts as well, with rulings that were clearly headed for appeals to higher courts. In one Tacoma courtroom, Judge John D. Cochran sidestepped the wrangling over specific regulations by ruling that "there is no Puyallup tribe [and hence no reservation] which succeeds in interest to the rights of the original signers of the Treaty of Medicine Creek" ("Uncommon Controversy," p. 67). His ruling, if upheld, would make treaty protections moot. It also illustrated the conceptual gulf between people who believed tribal identification in the mid-twentieth century was sentimental nostalgia and those who considered themselves citizens of sovereign nations.
Satiacum and other activists carried a double burden – to find a way to make a living and support their families (in 1957 he had remarried, to Suzanne Eals, and they had two more children), while also working for a binding acknowledgment of treaty rights. The state kept a close eye on him at several levels, charging him with welfare fraud, fining him for wasting salmon, confiscating boats and gear. On October 22, 1965, Judge Cochran ordered Satiacum to jail for contempt of court, his first jail sentence in the many legal battles since he was first jailed for illegal fishing in 1954. Addressing Satiacum in court, Cochran said, "You people are not martyrs. In my opinion you are losing the sympathy of those people who might believe in your position, but who think more of law and order" ("Puyallup Resistance …").
Satiacum took the longer view. "In the end, in the bitter end, we are sure the United States Supreme Court will hold that what the State of Washington has done is illegal," he told radio journalist Murray Morgan (1916-2000) just before beginning his 60-day sentence. He continued:
"The State must think so too. They must think so or they wouldn't keep dragging every action out as long as they can. They stall and stall. They want to keep us in court until we're broke. They want to keep our equipment tied up. They want to force us to take regular jobs and stay off the river. They want us to stop being Indians. They know that we don't have money, that as a people we Indians have the lowest average income in the state. They think they can starve us into submission. And I mean starve" (Morgan broadcast script).
Expanding the Battlefront
As the fishing wars continued on the rivers and in the courts, Satiacum expanded his activism, exploring a variety of ways to exercise tribal sovereignty in the face of the state's desire to assimilate Indians into an American melting pot.
When Fort Lawton on Magnolia Bluff in Seattle was to be surplused in the late 1960s, the United Indian People's Council, which became United Indians of All Tribes, laid claim to the land, citing treaty provisions that granted surplus military lands back to the Tribes. (The competing proposals were for an Anti-Ballistic Missile base and a park.)
Satiacum was a strategist and leader of a group that went to the main gate on March 8, 1970, to pursue the claim in person. Bernie Whitebear (1937-2000), a former Green Beret, was a co-leader. Using the same strategy that had paid off on the rivers, they had celebrity support, including Jane Fonda and Grace Thorpe, famed athlete Jim Thorpe's (1887-1953) daughter. "The Indian forces 'attacked' the fort from various points. Some entered from the Puget Sound beaches, climbing the bluff. Other groups scaled the fences, and all joined together on the post and erected a tepee" ("Fort Lawton to Discovery Park"). After three months of skirmishes, marches, arrests, and speeches, the parties agreed to negotiate, and in November 1971 an agreement was reached by Congress to sign a 99-year lease on a new building in the park. The Daybreak Star Cultural Center opened there in May 1977.
Satiacum spoke out on other cultural issues as well, filing suit against the Fife School Board and administrators in 1970 when his 15-year-old son Daniel was expelled for refusing to cut his long hair. That same year he was once again arrested for gillnetting at the mouth of the Puyallup River against state regulations.
The issue of fishing rights began its journey toward the U.S. Supreme Court on September 18, 1970, when U.S. Attorney Stan Pitkin (1937-1981) filed United States v. State of Washington, pitting the federal government against the state on behalf of 14 tribes. The trial began August 27, 1973, in Federal District Court Judge George Boldt's (1903-1984) courtroom in Tacoma. Boldt announced his ruling on February 12, 1974, determining that treaty tribes had the right to take up to half of the catch of salmon and steelhead from their traditional fishing grounds. The Ninth Circuit appeals court affirmed his decision on appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review it further. The controversy was not over – state departments and commercial and sports fishing groups fought back – but the tribes now had federal law on their side.
Meanwhile tribal governments and individual businesspeople were testing sovereignty claims in other areas of culture and business. Satiacum followed his pattern of moving forward in public, ahead of settled law, this time with tax-free sales of fireworks, cigarettes, and liquor, as well as a gambling casino on the Puyallup reservation. These enterprises provided more income potential, and more temptations, than river fishing. In fiscal 1974, the Washington State Department of Revenue estimated reservation revenues from tobacco sales alone brought in $3.5 million, depriving the state of the $1.60-per-carton tax it collected on off-reservation sales.
Additional revenue came from gambling at the Lucky Indian Casino, from fireworks sales at the Teepee Smoke Shack and Fireworks, and from a lunch counter, among other businesses. Satiacum also began to look for ways to bring in gasoline and sell it tax free, presaging the growth of gas stations on reservations.
He expressed his new affluence in a big house in Fife with an Olympic-size indoor pool, Cadillacs, and travel, including a trip to Zaire for the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. He and Suzanne, who had shared his life of poverty, activism, and arrests, began showing up in society columns. The News Tribune columnist Rod Cardwell described them in 1973 at a gala of the University Union Club as "the well-known Indian couple, SuZan and Bob Satiacum. Well, the dark and willowy SuZan was her usual stunning self. But Bob (the fisherman-activist-Smoke Shop proprietor), although handsome and mod in a turtleneck, was exceptionally quiet" ("Faces and Places").
The State of Washington fought back against Satiacum's businesses with raids and court cases, without much visible effect. Many both on and off the reservations admired his determination to demonstrate tribal sovereignty, and he was in a position to provide jobs and favors for his family and allies. Also, though, reports spread about intimidation and outright coercion of other tribal businesspeople. He was suspected, both by state officials and some of his own people, of flirting with organized crime.
Charged With Racketeering
On May 5, 1976, Satiacum and several employees were indicted by a federal grand jury, charged with illegal gambling and conspiracy. That same month he campaigned for tribal council, with a platform that included profit-sharing of his personal business income with the tribe. He lost to the incumbent, Ramona Bennett (b. 1938), who had been a longtime friend and sometime romantic partner. She accused him of voter intimidation.
In 1979 Bennett herself was removed by a recall petition, and Satiacum was elected chairman the next year. In 1982 he in turn was recalled after being suspected, among other things, of trying to arrange a contract killing of Bennett in 1976 and in 1978. Even that dramatic accusation was overshadowed by the sheer volume of allegations and charges in a sweeping investigation of Satiacum and his businesses. He was convicted on November 5, 1982, of 46 federal counts including attempted murder, illegal gambling, tax evasion, bribes, arson, and conspiracy. The combined convictions under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) carried sentences of 250 years.
Local reactions varied widely, from satisfaction to incredulity to sadness. Bennett, his alleged target, was not alone in her mixed emotions. "If the allegations are true, it is a tragic situation," she said. "And if they are not true and he is not guilty, it is also terribly tragic. There was no possible good decision in that case" (Bennett, Satiacum Outcome …").
Satiacum's lawyers announced plans to appeal. On December 6, however, he failed to appear for a court date in Tacoma for another series of charges. By December 10 authorities reported "high quality rumors" that he was in British Columbia ("Satiacum Search …"), but they couldn't find him. His trial for embezzlement went on without him in Tacoma. He was found guilty January 11, adding another potential 50 years to his sentence. For months he was rumored to be dead, or abducted by the FBI, or perhaps in Cuba. On November 9, 1983, after nearly a year on the run, he was arrested by the RCMP in the small town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan.
A Quest for Refuge
At his deportation hearing on November 13 in Saskatoon, Satiacum pleaded refugee status. He was transferred to the Oakalla Correctional Center in Burnaby, B.C., to await the decision of what was bound to be a lengthy process. Prior to a bail hearing set for June 10, 1984, Suzanne Satiacum wrote to Murray Morgan. "I used to sincerely think we had friends," she said. "No one will sign my petitions of moral support. No tribes will write resolutions of support. Well I guess money talks …" (Suzanne Satiacum letter).
Morgan did write to the Canadian authorities, saying in part:
"My interest grew out of Bob's persistent attempts to assert the rights of the Puyallups under the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854. His persistence in carrying a case to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Indian fishing rights, was admirable. So, too, was his activism in resisting the attempts of the Washington State Game Department to re-interpret the court's decision.
"During the 1950s I was an occasional visitor at the Satiacum's house in Fife and I frequently called him for news background. I can attest that in that period Bob showed no signs of affluence; indeed, the opposite" (Morgan letter).
He closed by saying, "I assume he was guilty of some of the many charges but I do not believe Bob Satiacum to be a man of violence, a threat to society, or someone who should not be admitted to bail" (Morgan letter).
Satiacum was not granted bail, and his application for refugee status was denied in May 1985. He appealed, and another two years of hearings, testimony, and legal maneuverings by a series of attorneys passed before he was accepted as a refugee and freed from three years of confinement on July 13, 1987. He was said to be the first American citizen to be granted refugee status in Canada.
By then his health was poor, with diabetes and a heart condition, and his prospects in Canada uncertain. With his American businesses liquidated and his assets seized for back taxes, he was dependent on Canadian supporters while he waited out the appeal process in American courts. Then, in November 1989, he was convicted in Canadian court of touching a 10-year-old girl, the granddaughter of supporters, "for a sexual purpose." She had reported that he put his hand in her underwear ("Supporters Seek …"). Once again, he fled, taking refuge on the Mount Currie Indian Reserve near Pemberton, B.C.
On the small reserve, which was already in conflict with the Canadian government over issues, including logging on their hunting and trapping grounds, he found supporters who took inspiration from his life. "He practiced these rights that we're fighting for," a resident named Tanemsvk told a reporter. "Just the fact that he lived his sovereign and aboriginal rights – that's reason enough to support him" ("Satiacum's Sanctuary"). Satiacum eventually left Mount Currie and was arrested March 19, 1991, at the Adams Lake Reserve near Salmon Arm, B.C.
Ramona Bennett once again summed up the feelings of many about Satiacum's complicated legacy. "He's paid a pretty dear price for whatever crimes he may have committed, real or imagined," she told the News Tribune. "There have been people who swindled the government out of billions of dollars through the S&L scandal who are walking freely on the streets" ("Satiacum's Kin Prays …"). She said she believed he had been framed by U.S. authorities.
Six days later, while at Vancouver's pre-trial center awaiting sentencing for the molestation conviction, Satiacum died of a heart attack, his fifth, while being transported to the hospital. His body was returned to Puyallup, where he was given a chief's funeral. Some 1,500 people attended. In a letter written from Canadian prison to his proposed biographer, Robert Ruby of Moses Lake, Satiacum had suggested that his tombstone might read: "Here lies the Indian that beat out the U.S. government – of 1200 years prison time" ("Hero? Racketeer? …"). In fact, Satiacum's tombstone at the cemetery of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians off E 28th Street in Tacoma reads "Chief of Chiefs Robert 'Bob' Satiacum. He worked diligently during his lifetime to promote the exercise of Tribal sovereignty for Indian Nations."