Author's note: Every once in a while, a milestone anniversary comes around that allows us to learn about or review important historical events. This year, because of the pandemic, the Puyallup tribe did not do much to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a crucial standoff beneath the new structure now known as the Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge. That event, and the media coverage it garnered, ultimately led local authorities to live up to the promise of tribal fishing rights, agreed to in the treaties of the 1850s.
I didn’t know much about the Puyallups' role in this until I got a chance to sit down with former chairwoman Ramona Bennett. That interview is one I won’t forget – and I hope the story that it yielded helps all of us remember how recently indigenous people here were hounded for trying to make a living exercising their rights – as well as to recall the power of public attention and media coverage to turn things around.
(This story originally aired Sept. 9, 2020.)
A deep red modern span stretches over Pacific Highway on the bridge that links Tacoma to Fife, carrying a steady stream of cars and trucks over the Puyallup River. The bridge and an older portion of it nearby were recently renamed by the City of Tacoma in collaboration with the Puyallup Tribe. It’s now called the Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge and in Twulshootseed, yabuk’wali, meaning “place of a fight.”
Fifty years ago today, members of the Puyallup Tribe faced off here with local law enforcement.
The mass arrest of protesters who had set up a fishing camp on federal land alongside the river ultimately led to the landmark court decision that codified treaty fishing rights for tribes throughout the region.
Standing on the banks of the Puyallup River, in that spot beneath the bridge, Tribal Councilmember James Rideout looks out on an empty plot of land that’s surrounded by industry. Traffic roars overhead.
“This is, to me, the most sacred piece of property that we have in our tribe,” he says as he surveys the land. He’s planning to fence off a portion of it to create a historical fishing camp, where tribal youth could come to fish and learn about their history.
Rideout says the standoff that happened here enabled him and so many other tribal members to become commercial fisherman and gooey duck divers.
“I've spent my entire life exercising these treaty rights,” he says. “And I raised my children that way. At the age of 1 (year) old, my children were strapped in the bows of our boats, right out of their car seat, right out of the car, straight in the back of the boats. And so they live this way of life.”
It’s a lifestyle Rideout loves and he’s grateful. Because 50 years ago, his people had to fish at night to keep their gear from being taken. The state had deemed their harvest illegal.
“People were being jailed. The bottom of their boats were being punched out — and their nets were being taken.”
In the late 1960s, indigenous people were staging fish-ins on rivers all around the region. Nisqually fisherman Billy Frank Jr.’s efforts are well known, along with those of Robert Satiakum from the Puyallup.
Another key figure in that fight in Tacoma was now 82-year-old Ramona Bennett, who joined the Puyallup Tribal Council in 1968 and was elected as the tribe’s chairwoman in 1971.
“Oh, God. We had nothing — not 1 acre of undisputed title property. We had no income. We had no money, no services, no recognized rights,” she says of her tribe at that time.
But they believed they had the right and a sacred calling to protect and harvest salmon, which is at the heart of their culture. That’s why their predecessors had put that right into their treaties with the white settlers in the 1850s.
Despite that, Bennett says, for more than 90 years, on all the rivers in the region, local law enforcement wouldn’t allow it.
“Right here on the Puyallup, any time any of our people went fishing, here'd come the game wardens," she says. "They had like an army, and they had jet boats. You’d be amazed at the weapons they had.”
In the summer of 1970, Bennett joined others and set up their fishing camp under the bridge, to bear witness, right in the center of town. They knew this location would be highly visible and it was relatively easy for media to get there, to cover the events. Bennett had a portable typewriter with her and made a point of keeping news reporters informed.
“Just brought in a little bit of camping gear and told people, you know, well, we'll do our own damn security,” Bennett says.
At its height, the camp housed several hundred people in tents and teepees. They came from all over. Many were active in the Indian rights movement in other places — and had taken part in the occupation of federal properties at the former prison complex on Alcatraz Island or the U.S. Army post in what is now Seattle’s Discovery Park.
“It was a nice camp, it was a nice atmosphere. There was a lot of love. There was a lot of rage,” Bennett says. “I sat people in a circle that were from Montana, Canada, California, because Alcatraz people had come and joined us and people that had been active with Fort Lawton.”
Eventually, the local police chief warned them if they didn’t clear out, there would be a raid. The protesters held their ground. Bennett says she remembers looking up at the old bridge, where dozens of officers had lined up with their guns.
"The green bridge looked like a porcupine," she says. "They were lined up along the railing up there with rifles pointing down right at us,” she says.
Shots were fired from both sides. No one was killed, but the protesters set fire to a creosote bridge. Bennett fought back when an officer pushed her. Sixty people were arrested.
“By the end of the day, I was looking at 35 years in prison," she says. "Seriously. They piled up that many charges.”
In the end, she didn’t have to serve any prison time. The standoff on that bridge in the middle of Tacoma got so much publicity that the U.S. attorney filed suit against the state for infringing on tribal treaty rights. It took four years, but in 1974, Judge George Boldt reaffirmed the right of American Indian tribes in Washington to act as co-managers, entitled to half of the fish harvest every year.
“The Boldt decision made it clear that these treaty rights to harvest are the highest law of the land,” Bennett says.
And now, 50 years later, with the bridge renamed and the prosperity of the tribe dramatically improved, she’s proud of the accomplishment.
“Our children can go to school today with their heads up. And no one's calling their parents thieves for harvesting our salmons we've always had a right to harvest,” she says. “I feel good about that. But I feel bad about the situation our salmon are in now.”
Bennett says protecting the salmon doesn’t stop. Pollution, habitat destruction and booming populations of predators like seals and sea lions all make the future of salmon fishing uncertain.
Among her current foes she counts Puget Sound Energy with its liquefied natural gas plant and the Electron Dam that recently spilled rubber debris from unpermitted AstroTurf into the upper Puyallup. She’s also conspiring with Councilmember Rideout to flout the Marine Mammal Act and resume a tribal hunt for seal and sea lion meat.