On June 24, 1974, a charter committee meets in Seattle to develop a constitution for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The committee, made up of representatives from several Western Washington tribes, will write a constitution and bylaws for an intertribal fishing commission that will serve the treaty tribes who have recently had their fishing rights reaffirmed in the case U.S. v. Washington (commonly known as the Boldt decision). The charter committee was formed in response to the tribes' new role as co-managers of treaty area fisheries, one result of the Boldt decision. The committee envisions the organization as a way to share tribal financial resources, more efficiently develop fisheries management programs, offer a forum for the tribes to discuss policy and coordinated actions, and improve public understanding of Indian cultures and treaty rights. The commission will serve the Indian committee by developing fisheries management, hatchery support, and public information programs. It will also support the tribes' ongoing efforts to develop working relationships with state agencies and other non-Indians, protect their treaty rights, and restore Western Washington fisheries.
Fishing and the Tribes
Fish, salmon in particular, have been an integral part of tribal cultures in Western Washington for millennia. When those tribes agreed to cede the vast majority of their lands through treaties made with Governor Isaac Stevens in the 1850s, they reserved the right to fish in their "usual and accustomed grounds and stations ... in common with all citizens of the Territory" (See for example, Medicine Creek Treaty, Article 3). As the non-Indian population increased and canning enabled longer, better salmon preservation, more non-Indians began fishing salmon runs on Western Washington rivers in the 1890s. Increased demand and more effective fishing techniques, such as fish wheels and fish traps, along with habitat degradation, led to declines in those salmon runs.
Between the 1890s and the 1970s, Washington state fisheries agencies repeatedly tried to exercise control over off-reservation Indian fishing. The tribes resisted this control, citing the fishing rights they had reserved in the treaties. The tribes took the conflict to the courts several times as individual members were arrested for fishing. These cases did not resolve the issue and in 1970 the United States government entered a case on the side of Western Washington's treaty tribes to force the state to recognize the tribes' federal treaty-protected fishing rights.
The decision in the case, U.S. v. Washington (commonly known as the Boldt decision), handed down in 1974, reaffirmed the treaty tribes' fishing rights and radically redefined their relationship with the state. Judge George Boldt (1903-1984) ruled that article three of the treaties entitled the tribes to one-half of the annual fish harvest and that the tribes had the right to co-manage the fisheries with the state.
Forming the Fisheries Commission
The tribes realized that they would need to work together in order to protect their fishing rights and to meet the requirements of serving as co-managers. The idea for an intertribal fisheries organization had been around for at least 15 years, and the situation created by the Boldt decision spurred its formation. On May 1, 1974, a group of tribal officials met in Portland to develop the idea. They appointed a charter committee, which included Hank Adams (b. 1943), Forrest Dutch Kinley (1914-1983), Guy McMinds (b. 1937), Charles Peterson (1914-1997), Calvin Peters (1927-2011), Leo LeClair, and Dennis Allen (b. 1935). Dutch Kinley chaired the charter committee.
On June 24, 1974, the charter committee met in Seattle to develop the commission's constitution and bylaws. The committee structured the commission's board around the five treaty areas, with one representative for each area. It charged the commission with giving "the treaty tribes the capability of speaking with a single voice on fisheries management and conservation matters" ("Indians Form Commission on Fisheries").
Tribes in each of the treaty areas formed councils to ratify the constitution and choose representatives to the commission. The Nisqually, Puyallup, and Squaxin Island tribes met as signers of the Medicine Creek Treaty. The Makah, as the only signers of the Treaty of Neah Bay, sent a representative from their tribe. Representatives from the Lummi, Muckleshoot, Nooksack, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Suquamish, Swinomish, Tulalip, and Upper Skagit tribes, all signers of the Treaty of Point Elliott, chose one commissioner. The Lower Elwha Klallam, the Port Gamble Klallam, and the Skokomish met as a council of the signers of the Treaty of Point No Point. This treaty council would be joined by the Jamestown S'Klallam when they regained federal recognition in 1981. The Hoh, Quileute, and the Quinault met as signers of the Treaty of Olympia.
The first commissioners were Forrest Dutch Kinley, Charles Peterson, Calvin Peters, Guy McMinds, and Dennis Allen. Each was already involved in tribal governance and fisheries issues. Kinley was a former chair of the Lummi Nation. McMinds served as director of the Quinault Indian Nation's Natural Resources Development Project. Peterson, the Makah fisheries director, had served as a Makah council member. Peters chaired the Squaxin Island Tribal Council. LeClair served as a member of the Muckleshoot Tribal Council and as executive director of the Small Tribes Organization of Western Washington. Dennis Allen was a Skokomish fisherman.
The Commission's Work
The commission quickly developed programs to manage and track Indian fishing, assist tribes with their own fisheries programs, and produce information to improve the public's and the tribes' understanding of Indian fishing rights and disputes that arose after the decision.
Over time the commission's role has changed as the tribes' needs have changed. In the 1970s and 1980s the tribes needed to pool financial resources and develop working relationships with non-Indians. The commission supported the tribes' efforts to resolve disputes over shellfish harvesting, a process that took 13 years after the courts upheld the Indians' rights to half of the shellfish in the treaty area in 1994.
In the 1990s the tribes used the commission to develop a greater emphasis on habitat protection and restoration. Currently, the tribes are working to resolve the latest subproceeding under U.S. v. Washington, the Culverts Case. (In 2001 United States and the treaty tribes filed suit under U.S. v. Washington asking the court to order the state to repair culverts running under state roads if they blocked salmon from reaching spawning grounds.) The commission supports that case by providing a forum for the tribes to discuss policy, assisting with coordination, and providing expert witnesses.