RIGGINS, Ida. - Summer can come late to northern Idaho, where Nez Perce
tribal lands are nestled within the Clearwater and Snake River drainages.
Twenty-five years ago, however, the storms that attracted attention weren't
in the sky. Instead, irate Idahoans threatened determined Nez Perce fishers
who took a stand on Rapid River for tribal treaty rights.
It was June 13, 1980, just five years after Congress passed the Indian
Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act that inspired tribes across
the nation to reclaim control of their own destinies. Idaho, though,
instead of embracing and acknowledging Indian self-determination, issued an
ultimatum. Returning salmon runs, it proclaimed, were too low to permit
fishing by either Indians or non-Indians. More, the state added, the low
runs were being exacerbated by tribal fisheries. (Never mind that states
have no jurisdiction over tribal fishing rights that were established and
protected by federal treaties.)
Virgil Holt, current chairman of the tribe's fish and wildlife commission,
noted that "tribal members knew that the treaty of 1855 predated the Idaho
Constitution and is recognized by the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law
of the land." Realizing that the state was trying to muscle in on the
sovereignty of the Nez Perce, members of the tribe - including elders,
women and children - descended on Rapid River's prime fishing grounds to
exercise their treaty rights.
The standoff made all the papers, with pronouncements from the Idaho Fish
and Game Department about using deadly force if necessary and even calling
in the National Guard if they had to. For their part, the Indians packed
gas masks and their own weapons along with their fishing gear. Clear in
everyone's minds were the "fish-ins" Puget Sound tribes staged in the
mid-1970s and the rabid, violent reactions of Washington state fisheries
personnel, which Judge George Boldt described as the most egregious
behavior in the nation since the post-Civil War era when former slave
owners tried to overturn emancipation.
Unlike some of their Puget Sound counterparts, none of the Nez Perce at
Rapid River was hurt on that June day. Still, some were arrested for
illegal fishing and ended up serving time in jail; finally, in 1982, Idaho
District Court Judge George Reinhardt dismissed all charges.
The Reinhardt ruling underscored the pre-eminence of treaty rights over
those of the states. It also reminded Idahoans that the Nez Perce treaty
gave tribal members rights to fish in any streams their ancestors
customarily used. The victory solidified tribal fishing rights for the Nez
Perce as well as for tribes across the nation.
These days, Nez Perce and sports fishermen alike enjoy taking salmon at
Rapid River. The tribe has pioneered fish hatchery methods that are helping
to restore runs to sustainable, harvestable levels. "When the salmon are
thriving, the Nez Perce tribe and the state of Idaho benefit not only
financially but politically," said Holt. "The Clearwater and Snake River
areas are not only a major tourist attraction for people all across the
United States, but persons outside the country as well."
The 25-year commemoration included presentations by tribal fisherman,
drumming by the Nez Perce Nation and Lightning Creek. There was also a
salmon feed since, according to Elmer Crow, member of the tribe's fish and
wildlife commission, "the Nez Perce tribe believes that to extend a hand in
friendship is to make sure a person is fed."
Representatives from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission were
also on hand. And a healing circle was formed to honor the Nez Perce people
who set their fears aside back in the spring of 1980 and risked their lives
to take a stand for treaty rights and tribal sovereignty.