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Racism and Wildlife

After the acquisition of Alcatraz Island in November 1969 by the American Indian Movement state and federal governments saw pressure to curb the movements happening within Indian country. Racial tensions arose as government organizations looked the other way and ignored treaty rights until key court cases forced them to take recognition.

After the acquisition of Alcatraz Island in November 1969, the first phone call we got came from Billy Frank Sr. He called our headquarters at the American Indian Center in San Francisco that first night after he had seen me on television. Frank was the long time leader of the fish-ins in Washington State. The tribes in Washington finally won back their treaty right to hunt and fish, years later, in the Boldt decision (U.S. v. Washington).

“Hey, Dean, what are you guys doing down there?” he asked me in his booming bass voice.

“We’re taking back some Indian land,” I told him. “We’re starting with Alcatraz, but we are going to take back some other places.”

“Good for you,” he said. “It’s about time. A couple of carloads of us are coming down tonight.”

Sure enough, they showed up the next day. Frank’s son-in-law Al Bridges, who would ultimately be arrested more than 50 times, and his wife Maiselle showed up ready to help. Their daughter Suzette and her husband, Sid Mills, were with them when they came into the Indian Center. Sid had just got back from fighting in Vietnam, where he had been critically wounded. His welcome home was to be arrested for fishing on the Nisqually River.

The actions of the fish-in people, including the ideological leader Hank Adams, the Bridges family, the Mills family, the Don and Janet McLoud family, the Frank family, and others, had sparked the revolution of standing up for Indian rights in Washington State. According to the treaties they had signed in 1854, they had the right to hunt and fish in the usual and accustomed places.

However, beginning in the early part of the twentieth century, the state game wardens began to enforce state laws on Indian lands. The BIA, which should have stood up for the Indian people, looked the other way. The BIA never sent any law enforcement people or attorneys to help the beleaguered Indians. They were mostly on their own, although the actor Marlon Brando and the Black comedian Dick Gregory both joined ranks to show their support by getting arrested with them. Gregory and his wife both pulled prison terms after being arrested in the fish-ins.

The Boldt decision in 1974 affirmed the right of the Indians to 50 percent of the salmon and steelhead runs. That decision soon ended the fish-ins and led to the creation of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC). For a quarter of a century, the Commission, made up of Indians and non-Indians, has regulated the fishing industry in a manner that has helped the fish to recover. Where the runs of both fish had diminished greatly in the previous several decades, the runs have begun to build up to much higher levels. Maiselle’s brother Billy Frank Jr. is the head of the Commission.

However, the court decision started a reaction by commercial and sport fishermen in the Northwest that is still having serious consequences today. The decision was prompted by the actions of the “fish-in” people from several tribes in the state of Washington. Several of them had been arrested dozens of times when they fished the old Indian way at Frank’s Landing.

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The 1983 Voigt decision (Lac Court Oreilles Band of Chippewa Indians v. Lester P. Voigt) affirmed the treaty rights of the Chippewa tribes to harvest off-reservation natural resources in parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. The decision affirmed the treaties of 1837, 1842 and 1854. It immediately set off a chain of events that are still causing problems today.

By 1987 the anti-Indian groups were very active. The leading groups were Equal Rights for Everyone (ERE), the Wisconsin Alliance for Rights and Resources (WARR), and Protect Americans Rights and Resources (PARR).

The state of Wisconsin also spawned the development of “Treaty Beer.” A pizza parlor owner, Dean Crist, started an anti-Indian group in the 1980s. He called the group Stop Treaty Abuse. He organized anti-Indian demonstrations around the state, mainly on the issue of Indians asserting their right to spearfish walleyes. The state had passed a law in 1908 outlawing the practice, but the law did not apply on reservations. Indians, however, had complied with the law almost from the beginning. When they started asserting their right to spearfish again in the 1980s, they became the object of hatred.

When the Anishnaabe (Chippewa) people started to fish the way they had been guaranteed by the treaties, and which the courts had just re-affirmed, they were assaulted on a daily basis. The locals called them timber niggers, welfare warriors, and spear chuckers. They carried signs such as the following, which were also made into bumper stickers:

  • Save a Walleye – Spear a Squaw
  • Save Two Walleyes – Spear a Pregnant Squaw
  • Too Bad Custer Ran Out of Bullets

Hate groups in South Dakota put out a poster in 1999 labeled “Indian Hunting Season. Hunting fees free to first 7,883 hunters/$1.00 thereon (sic).” It said Indians were worthless red bastards, dog eaters, gut eaters, prairie niggers, and F--- Indians. It said 1999-2000 would be an open season. The poster was the work of a hate group, but it reflected the extreme prejudice Indians have to live with in the Mississippi of the North.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell asked Attorney General Janet Reno to order an investigation into the poster. “This hate-filled propaganda exhorts hunters to murder human beings,” he said in his letter. Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota joined Ben in condemning the poster. It apparently did not lead directly to any murders, but it inflamed racist passions.

There are many kinds of hatred of Indians expressed by many kinds of people. Racist teachers intimidate and ignore Indian students. Landlords refuse to rent to Indian tenants. Health clinics refuse to serve Indian patients.

But Indians perhaps bring about more racist actions by Indian haters with our insistence on standing by the terms of treaties that promised hunting and fishing rights. Treaties are in perpetuity; Slade Gorton, county commissioners, sports hunters and sports fishermen have to live with this reality.

This column is adapted from “Racism in Indian Country,” published by Peter Lang in 1999. Dr. Chavers is Director of Catching the Dream, a nonprofit organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico. CTD provides scholarships to high-potential Native college students and provides grants and technical assistance to Indian schools to help them improve. Write to him at