Land Back, Fish Back

This piece was originally commissioned by the Seattle Department of NeighborhoodsIn celebration of Native American Heritage Month, they invited journalist, Luna Reyna, to curate a series of stories to amplify and honor the people and experiences of Seattle’s Native American community. This is part of that series. 
Welcome to Indian Country

Where is Indian Country?
It’s everywhere we stand.
It’s anywhere we dance.
It’s where the earth loves
the feel of our feet.

Welcome to Indian Country. 
What does that mean? 
It means this is where 
we lift our voice in song 
and make a joyful drumbeat 
so our hearts can sing along. 

Welcome to Indian Country. 
This beloved country here, 
where we honor our ancestors 
by growing stronger every year, 
by making laughter the answer 
that wipes away our tears. 

Welcome to Indian Country. 
What does the future hold?  
In uncertain times like these 
we reach for words like hope 
and things we can be sure of—  
sunrises, beauty, and love. 

Welcome to Indian Country. 
It’s everywhere we dance and 
where the feast is truly grand, 
Welcome to Indian Country. 
Now give us back our land!


When I say land back, as a Lhaq’temish woman I mean land back the way it was, and fish back as well. Academic papers, news articles, and books have been published, movies have been made, and songs have been sung about the fish wars—the infamous struggle that resulted in the landmark case, U.S. v. Washington. As the 50th anniversary of the Boldt decision approaches, we are presented with an opportunity to look back and see what has transpired between that historically significant moment and the present.

It’s also an opportunity to acknowledge that the struggle to have our treaty rights honored didn’t begin with the arrests, beatings, and confiscation of personal property during the civil rights era. By the time the movement leading to U.S. v. Washington got underway, the unjust activities of the state as a means of depriving Indigenous peoples of treaty rights had been going on for more than a century.

With the perfection of the canning process in the 1880s, salmon came to be seen as a valuable commodity. Bellingham, Washington, the largest city on Lhaq’temish and Nooksack homelands, was the site of the world’s largest cannery. There are stories in our oral tradition of tribal elders recalling the devastation of seeing salmon piled up dead on the shoreline because the canneries didn’t want them or couldn’t process them fast enough.

The canneries must have realized that it wasn’t a good look to have their misuse of the fish washing up on shore, so they began the practice of piling the unused salmon up in great heaps on a barge and sending them offshore to rot.

In 1897, Lummi fought a landmark case against violations of our treaty rights and the abuses leveled against us by the cannery at Point Roberts. William Brinker, U.S. Attorney for Washington, filed suit against the Alaska Packers Association on behalf of the Lummi tribe to restore rights to our fishing grounds. Judge Hanford was given the case and ruled against the provisions of treaty rights for the third time in five years.

During the case, tribal fishers testified to being threatened by the defendant with a revolver if they didn’t move off their fishing claims. When they left, John Waller tore down their fishing shacks and used their timber to construct his cannery. He then installed fish traps which depleted fish stocks to the point where they were no longer profitable for tribal reef netters who had been fishing the site for more than 10,000 years.

“H.B. Kirby, who was then in the employ of the defendant Association, came to the shack occupied by me on the beach and ordered me to leave and stayed around until I left. He threatened me with injury if I did not leave.”

–Old Polen, Lummi Fisher

In 1913 the Lummi tribe was in the judicial system again when tribal member Harry Price allowed himself to be arrested to make a test of treaty fishing rights. Lummi won the case, but the incensed state fish and game commissioner asserted that he would continue to arrest Lummi fishermen. Lummi sought an injunction against the commissioner to prohibit continued arrests. The injunction was not enforced, and the commissioner continued his injurious actions.

In 1915, Lummi retaliated by conducting a citizen’s arrest on a group of Austrians fishing in Lummi waters. The poachers were held at an undisclosed Lummi residence until news of the arrest reached the Oval Office. President Wilson, wishing to avoid international conflict, instructed the state fish commissioner to cease harassment of Lummi fishers. The Austrians were released, but antagonism of Lummi fishers continued in decades to follow.

In 1942, the Supreme Court handed down Tulee v. W.A., a court decision that would leave “the state with the power to impose on Indians equally with others … as … necessary for the conservation of fish.” But it was felt and expressed by Indigenous fishers that the state used the term ‘conservation’ as a weapon to criminalize their way of life. The overharvesting by the non-treaty commercial fishery and loss of salmon to hydroelectric dams is evidence of it. Imagine the burn of injustice to be shut out and criminalized for practicing your lifeway on the grounds of conservation under these terms.

Twenty years later, in 1963, Washington v. McCoy would come along and justify the state’s imposition of “reasonable and necessary regulations” on tribes. These impositions would be made in violation of the treaties. Days before Christmas in 1963, tribal members staged a protest at the Washington state capital in Olympia. They carried signs that read “No salmon – No Santa.” After inviting them in and hearing their complaints, Governor Rosellini dismissed them, saying, “Nice to hear your problems. Come back again.”

Early in 1964, the group founded Survival of the American Indian Association to fight for treaty fishing rights. Another decade would pass, and tribes would still be in the struggle to have the treaties honored. In 1974, U.S. attorney Stan Pitkin filed suit on behalf of tribes.

“We had an encampment on the Puyallup River; there must have been three or four hundred of us and our kids and everything—we had a fire, and we had an encampment. Everyone was living there, and we were fishing on the Puyallup River. They gassed us that day. They gassed all of us. They gassed the U.S. Attorney, Stan Pitkin. We’d been begging Stan Pitkin and all the U.S. attorneys to take our case, you know, ‘the state of Washington is beating us up every night and every day there, over treaty rights, and you guys haven’t done a thing.’ Well, when they got gassed, he took the case, and that’s what happened in U.S. v. Washington.”

–Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually Leader

On June 4, 1975, Judge George Boldt handed down his decision honoring the tribes’ right to 50% of the salmon catch available for harvest after a set amount had been set aside for conservation. When the Boldt decision came around, regional fisheries were already experiencing a steep decline. After a century of overfishing by non-treaty commercial fishers, destruction of salmon habitat, and the installation of dams on salmon-bearing streams, some runs were on the brink of collapse.

Policymakers who were opposed to the Boldt decision now saw tribal fishers as the perfect scapegoat to bear the onus for the declining runs. Despite and perhaps because of their small numbers and recent arrival on the scene, tribal fishers became easy targets for the frustrations of non-treaty fishers who now had to share an already depleted harvest.

The criminalization of Indigenous fishers has been only one of many strategies enacted by the state to erode treaties and undermine federal obligations to tribes for the millions of acres ceded to make way for white habitation. In addition to scapegoating tribal fishers the government also made tribes accountable for fish harvested under the guidelines of US v. WA, by mandating the operation of hatcheries to replenish the stock.

Some tribal members see hatcheries as interfering with nature’s wisdom and the salmon’s sacred circular journey. But others see hatcheries as a means of profit, and here is how the Boldt decision impacted the covenant between tribes and salmon: Under colonial law, tribal fishers returned to our fishing grounds now as commercial fishermen.

With the Boldt decision, we entered the marketplace, where the gift of the salmon is not valued as a sacrifice supporting an ancient and sacred relationship, but as a financial resource. When we agreed to interfere with their journey by raising salmon in hatcheries, this too, is when colonial laws coerced us into giving up our sacred covenant with the salmon in exchange for a way out of the crushing poverty that had long been imposed by a socio-economic system designed to keep indigenous peoples in a state of constant financial vulnerability.

Today, the continued depletion of fish populations has provided scientific evidence that pumping 5 billion hatchery fish into the wild worldwide is detrimental to wild salmon runs. Hatcheries were initially put into place to justify dams. The powers that be, way back as early as the 1800s said, well, if we can just produce salmon in hatcheries then they don’t need to go upstream to spawn, and we can just put this dam right here.

There have been hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions put into selling the public on destructive environmental practices. Restoration to a state of balance and prosperity on par with what life was like before colonizer laws and activities depleted fish runs and dismantled lifeways—that will be a step toward justice for Indigenous peoples and for salmon. It must be the model that lawmakers strive toward in their policies and budgets.

Just as onboarding tribes into the aquaculture industry was an investment, so too must be restoration and reconciliation. We must be funded. And considering what was taken from tribes and the ecological well-being of our homelands—which in Washington over the last 200 years has been hundreds of billions in profit from non-indigenous beneficiaries in the fishing industry, the canning industry, the hydroelectric industry, and finally, the aquaculture industry—funding tribal stewardship can be seen as a small, but necessary step toward correcting past harms.

History demonstrates the health of the planet pays dearly when tribes are excluded from participation in decision making regarding ecological stewardship. For colonizers, building a vision for a just future for salmon and tribes requires an act of imagination. For tribes the vision for justice is an act of remembrance.

Written from research conducted for Fish Outlaws, a collaboration project funded by National Geographic Society.

Rena Priest

Rena Priest is an enrolled member of the Lummi Nation. She served as the 6th Washington State Poet Laureate (2021-2023). With the support of the Academy of American Poets, the Washington Center for the Book, Washington State Libraries, Humanities Washington, and the Washington State Arts Commission, she edited an anthology of salmon poetry titled I Sing the Salmon Home. Priest is also the author of two collections of poetry and a non-fiction book about beaches. Her poetry and nonfiction appear widely online and in print. Learn more at