Charles Chevalier’s family had fished in the San Juan Islands forever. And he knew the impending decision in U.S. v. Washington, which upheld Coast Salish treaty fishing rights but limited those rights to recognized indigenous nations, was going to affect his people in a big way.
Chevalier’s people, who a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent first labeled as the Mitchell Bay Band in a 1919 census, for the bay where many of them originated, was not recognized as a political entity. They had always lived on the islands, all the way back to sweh-tuhn, the First Man, and they stayed on the islands after the treaties were signed and relatives moved to reserves and reservations.
So, in 1974, Chevalier organized the Mitchell Bay Band and issued ID cards. “My card is No. 11,” said his nephew, Rick Guard, who fishes the family’s ancestral reef-net site off Stuart Island. “He felt we all should start exercising our rights to fish, even though we were not federally recognized. The first fishing season after the Boldt decision, we just went fishing.”
It was an act of self-governance, a defense of his people’s identity, a defense of the rights of indigenous islanders to live the way they had always lived.
Chevalier passed away on April 7. He was 84. A gathering in his memory was without media attention or elaborate ceremony. But even three months after his passing, he was being remembered by others as a leader, an expert fisherman, and a gentleman.
“His work on behalf of the Mitchell Bay Band—that’s something he can be proud of,” said Mel Sheldon, chairman of the Tulalip Tribes. “Basically, he put them in the forefront.”
Sheldon, who fished for years in the Salish Sea and in Bristol Bay with Chevalier and his family, said Chevalier was a “godfather” to younger fishermen like him.
“We enjoyed being part of the family. He had life experience that helped us develop into who we are. He had a gentle demeanor and was always willing to help a person out.”
Chevalier was also a knowledgeable and indefatigable fisherman, “a man for all seasons,” Sheldon said. Depending on the season, Chevalier gillnetted in Bristol Bay (“I was amazed at how many hours he could fish,” Sheldon said), purse seined in the San Juan Islands, and reef-netted near the entrance to Stuart Island’s Reid Harbor.
Reef netting is a method of fishing developed by the Coast Salish, in which nets are used to simulate a natural reef that salmon follow into a scoop net. At the time of his passing, Chevalier was the only Native fisherman with a reef-net license and one of only 11 reef-net license owners in Washington.
“[E]very year, about the end of July, you'll find him doing the same thing his Native ancestors from the Mitchell Bay, or San Juan Tribe, have always done,” reporter Paul Shukovsky wrote of Chevalier in an August 12, 2002 story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
“Just off a point of land jutting from Stuart Island—a place where Indians have used reef nets for thousands of years—Chevalier owns a reef net location at the mouth of Reid Harbor… This site has been passed down through generations...”
Wilma Rimer collection
Reef-net fishing originated in the San Juan Islands and is a method used by Coast Salish fishers today, including members of Charles Chevalier’s family. An artificial reef made from a net disguised with cedar bark, nettle fibers, and beach grass guided migrating salmon into a scoop net.
Jack Giard, a non-Native fisherman who serves on the Fraser River panel of the Pacific Salmon Commission, said Chevalier was one of the more successful fishermen on the straits—but he never fished in a way that it interfered with another, and he even shared with other commercial fishermen where the fish were jumping.
During one run, Giard said Chevalier told him it would be “interesting to do an experiment.” They both saw a line of jumpers coming. Chevalier told Giard he’d let him set his purse seine nets first, then he’d set his nets about a third of a mile behind him, and after they’d “compare notes” on how many fish they caught. Giard said he caught about 300 fish; Chevalier “caught just over 900.” It was his way of proving that a fisherman didn’t have to be first to set to be successful. It also showed his fishing prowess.
“He was a good fisherman. He was out to catch fish, but I never saw him do anything untoward [to] anyone,” Giard said. “He had a tremendous sense of humor and he played a good ballgame. Everybody liked him.”
Born into a “vast kinship network” Chevalier was born on June 1, 1930 and grew up on Stuart Island, which elders at the time still knew as kwuh-nus, a Saanich name for whale. “Along this beach here there was nothing but Indian camps,” Chevalier’s aunt told Shukovsky in 2002. “Saanich, from Canada, used to come up in big long canoes; you could hear them singing on the water.”
Stuart Island is part of the San Juan archipelago, a cluster of islands in the middle of the Salish Sea that was home base for British and American troops during a territory dispute between their countries from 1859 to 1872.
The territory dispute was settled in favor of the United States, bringing with it a flood of newcomers—some 749 homestead claims were filed in the county, mostly between 1890 and 1894, according to one county report—and many Native Islanders joined family on reserves on Vancouver Island and reservations in mainland Washington State. But Chevalier’s forebears were among those that stayed.
The BIA’s 1919 census counted 250 people in the Mitchell Bay Band—about as many as those at the time on the Songhees reserve across Haro Strait in Victoria, British Columbia.
Still, in the 1927 land claims case of Duwamish et al vs. United States, the court ruled the Mitchell Bay Band had no claim for compensation for ceded lands because they were not recognized by the United States as a political entity. Later, the government would note that the Mitchell Bay Band included people of Lummi, Samish, First Nations and Alaska Native ancestry. (Chevalier’s own ancestry included Saanich and Tsimshian.)
While the U.S. government couldn’t see the Mitchell Bay Band as a cohesive group because of that mix, it makes sense.
The Mitchell Bay Band was part of a cultural and social network in the Salish Sea that offered, because of kinship, expanded access to ceremonies, potlatches, resources and trade. The late anthropologist Dr. Wayne Suttles described the network as “a kind of social continuum through marriage, a biological continuum because of kinship relations.”
So, a Mitchell Bay Band member may have Lummi ancestry, or Samish ancestry, or First Nations or Alaska Native ancestry. But they were still Mitchell Bay. Chevalier knew this. That’s why Guard, his nephew, believes to this day, “As an entity, the Mitchell Bay Band should be recognized.”
While the effort to win recognition for the Mitchell Bay Band was unsuccessful, through that effort Chevalier and members of his family were invited to fish under the umbrella of the Swinomish Tribe, where relatives lived. But family members, even those who were part Swinomish, never gave up their identity.
“It’s sad. There isn’t any recognition of our ever being a Tribe,” Marge Workman, Rick Guard’s mother, told Shukovsky in that 2002 article. “That’s what I am. I am a San Juan Indian.”
Now, Guard, tending the ancestral reef-net site, is carrying on an important part of the culture. He said: “It’s tradition. It’s history. It’s family.”
Passages: Charles Chevalier (1930-2015), U.S. Army veteran, fisherman, leader of the Mitchell Bay Band. Survived by a brother, daughters Ashley, Misty, and Chloe, nephew and cousins.