Fish Wars

From Article 3 of the Treaty of Medicine Creek, signed on 26 December 1854 by Isaac I. Stevens, governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, ratified by Congress on 3 March 1855, and signed by President Franklin Pierce: “The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory, and of erecting temporary houses for the purpose of curing, together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses on open and unclaimed lands.” First Nations were guaranteed their right under federal law to continue their traditional ways of hunting, gathering, and fishing. Representatives of nine tribes including the Nisqually and Puyallup, “regarded as one nation,” surrendered two and a quarter million acres and accepted other restrictions in return for three reservations, payments, and recognition of their traditional fishing and hunting rights. Similar terms were written for other groups of First Nations across the new territory. First Nations people were forced to fight to reclaim their rights. The Nisqually were given a reservation on rocky terrain which they could neither fish nor farm. After a war in 1855, they were given another reservation of five thousand acres along the Nisqually River. When two thirds of this was put under the control of the army on the creation of Fort Lewis, Willy Frank bought six acres from Wint Bennett. Bennett had operated Bennett’s Landing on the Nisqually River as a ferry crossing, and had a history of supporting the Nisqually. In spite of the treaty, local authorities would not let the Nisqually fish with nets, but Bennett allowed it and would refuse authorities the right to trespass without a warrant. While the authorities went back for a warrant, Bennett would warn people to remove their nets. Persistent persecution of people exercising their fishing rights led to the “fish wars.” In the sixties, groups of Nisqually and Puyallup people began to hold fish-ins and many were threatened, beaten, and arrested. Billy Frank Jr. had been arrested for fishing with a net at Frank’s Landing when he was fourteen years old. He became a leader of the Nisqually, promoting cooperative management of the fishery, and was arrested over fifty times in the sixties and the seventies for exercising Nisqually fishing rights.