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Remembering ‘Salmon Scam’: The River People’s Battle Continues

Remembering Yakama Nation fisher Daniel Sohappy, imprisoned in the 1980s on trumped-up charges for catching salmon as his ancestors had.

TOPPENISH, Yakama Nation—Attorney Tom Keefe remembers sitting in a jail cell with David Sohappy in the midst of the Yakama religious leader’s tribulation for doing nothing more than fishing the way his ancestors had.

In the wake of federal court decisions reaffirming the First Peoples’ inherent and treaty reserved fishing rights, Sohappy and others had been made scapegoats for declining fish returns on the Columbia River. One of the court decisions upholding Indian treaty fishing rights had stated that state and federal governments could regulate Indian fishing when necessary for conservation, and now state fish and game officials blamed Sohappy and other River People who fished at Cook’s Landing for 40,000 fish that didn’t make it to Bonneville Dam.

Fish and game officials controlled the narrative of Sohappy’s story: The World War II Army veteran who drove an old pickup was said to drive a Cadillac. The man who lived in a small house with dirt floors and a wood stove was portrayed as the ringleader of a poaching operation. Even after those 40,000 fish were found in tributaries, driven there by pollution in their natal area, the prosecution ensued.


Some 75 fishers were arrested in a sting operation dubbed “Salmon Scam.” Eighteen fishers, including Sohappy and his son, were convicted of selling salmon out of season. Sentences ranged from six months to five years.

An eagle feather sent to Sohappy, who received a five-year sentence, was seized as contraband. His daily diet of salmon—critical to his physical and spiritual health—was replaced by what Keefe called “shit prison food.” Keefe called Sohappy’s prison living conditions “like putting an eagle in a canary cage.” Sohappy’s health deteriorated.

David Sohappy is depicted in this detail from a mural at Cook's Landing, painted by his grandnephew, Toma Villa.

David Sohappy is depicted in this detail from a mural at Cook's Landing, painted by his grandnephew, Toma Villa.

And still, Keefe recalled, Sohappy “was a man without bitterness toward his oppressors, of which there were many.” Keefe said Sohappy told him that day in that cell, “I don’t get mad, because if I get mad they win. I pray for them, because they will have to face God and answer for what they’ve done.”

Sohappy’s case generated international attention, and he became a symbol in the fight to defend treaty rights and human rights. Thirty years later, “Yakama fishers still face challenges to their birthright to fish in all the usual and accustomed places, such as the Willamette River, Sandy River and beyond,” Emily Washines of Yakama Nation Fisheries reported. “The states are still spending thousands of dollars in court cases attempting to limit [the] River People’s rights. While these modern-day fish attacks may represent a small fraction of the Fish Wars, the fishers know to continue the legacy and never give up. The warriors of the Fish Wars have a story of courage that we will continue to tell as long as the rivers flow.”

That story of courage—and what it means to treaty fishing rights today—will be told at two upcoming events.

“Salmon Scam Revisited” will begin at 4:30 p.m. on April 25 at Heritage University’s Patricia Wade Temple Room. First there will be a student presentation, followed by a showing of the 1990 film River People, a photo exhibit and a lecture by attorney Tom Keefe on the fishers’ battle to protect their rights on the Columbia River.

Yakama Nation’s diabetes prevention program will co-host a River Walk at 11 a.m. April 28 at Columbia Hills State Park. This walk will includes discussions of cultural sites.

‘At All Usual and Accustomed Places’

Article III of the Yakama Nation Treaty of 1855 guarantees to the peoples of the Yakama Nation the “exclusive right of taking fish in all the streams, where running through or bordering said reservation,” as well as “at all usual and accustomed places.” This inherent right was reaffirmed in 1969 in Sohappy v. Smith/U.S. v. Oregon (the plaintiff was David Sohappy’s nephew Richard); and in 1975 in U.S. v. Washington. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that treaties are “the supreme law of the land,” and U.S. v. Washington was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But those court cases didn’t resolve the animosity that state fish and game officials and the sport fishing industry had toward Native American fishers. The state’s view: Treaty rights were special rights; Indian fishing had to be regulated in order to protect salmon. The Indians’ view: The state was discriminating against them so non-Indians could take all the fish.

Indeed, salmon runs throughout the region had plummeted, but the states didn’t want to consider commercial fishing licenses they gave to non-Indians for $15 a year with no daily catch limits. They didn’t want to consider habitat that had been damaged by agricultural runoff, deforestation, tainted runoff from streets, and dams and culverts that blocked fish passage. They wanted to blame one percent of the population—the people who had fished here forever, those whose relationship with salmon was cultural and spiritual as well as vital to their health.

And so, the National Marine Fisheries Service, spurred by fish and game officials in Washington and Oregon, conducted an undercover operation that targeted Sohappy and others. Undercover agents from NMFS built a fish-buying station in Celilo Village and lured fishers across the river over a period of two seasons, putting the fishers in violation of Yakama Nation fisheries law—transporting illegally caught fish across state lines, made a federal felony under an amendment to the Lacey Act. The amendment, according to Keefe, was written in anticipation of the sting.

“The Salmon Scam prosecution was premised on the big lie that Indian fishing, led by David from his home at Cook's Landing, was responsible for 40,000 missing fish above Bonneville Dam,” Keefe said. “In fact, the salmon spawned in different streams because of pollution pouring into the Columbia River from an aluminum plant on its bank.” (That site is one of 17 currently targeted for cleanup by Yakama Nation Fisheries.)

David Sohappy, his son and several other Native fishers were targeted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which sought to blame them for declining fish returns.

David Sohappy, his son and several other Native fishers were targeted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which sought to blame them for declining fish returns.

On June 17, 1982, federal law enforcement officers arrested Sohappy at his home at Cook’s Landing in the Columbia River Gorge and charged him with illegally catching and selling salmon. Sohappy and others were convicted in federal court.

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“Technically, Sohappy, the primary focus of the investigation that led to the arrests, was convicted for selling 178 fish for $4,675,” John Harrison of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council wrote as part of the council’s Columbia River History Project. “He received another five years’ probation for selling an additional 139 fish.”

The defendants asked that their case be heard in Yakama Nation Court on the grounds that—as one co-defendant recalled—“the federal government’s prosecution of Yakama fishers infringed on [the Yakama Nation’s] sovereign rights to govern our own members.” The defendants were acquitted, but the U.S. Justice Department ignored the Yakama court ruling and that demanded Sohappy and the co-defendants report to prison.

Sohappy, his appeals exhausted, reported to prison in California in 1985. In the ensuing years, he would be transferred to Oklahoma, and then Minnesota, and finally to Washington. Prison life and the transfers took their toll on his health, and Sohappy suffered a stroke.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, visited Sohappy in prison. The senator “stood behind a barbed-wire prison yard fence alongside his fellow WWII veteran and spoke of the injustice” of the arrests, prosecution and sentence, Keefe recalled. Partly because of Inouye’s intervention, Sohappy’s sentence was reduced and he was released in 1988.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, left, visited David Sohappy while the Yakama fisherman and spiritual leader was in prison. Inouye spoke out about the injustice of Sohappy's case, leading to a reduction in Sohappy's sentence.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, left, visited David Sohappy while the Yakama fisherman and spiritual leader was in prison. Inouye spoke out about the injustice of Sohappy's case, leading to a reduction in Sohappy's sentence.

That year, Sohappy had written a letter to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs “to set the record straight”: that he was persecuted for “trying to keep his religion, and for trying to live as our old people lived … I did not get equal justice under the law.”

Three years after his release, Sohappy passed away in a Hood River, Oregon, nursing home. He was 65.

‘He Fought for the Right for Me to Fish the River’

The first thing Sohappy said when he was released from prison was, “Ink nash waniktsha Tucknashut.” (“My name is Provider.”)

“His words ring as a testament to the River People’s way of life that when you provide for the people, the Creator will reward you,” Washines reported.

The fish in the Columbia River—Nch’i-Wana, or “Great River”—and its tributaries are of paramount importance to the People, their diet, and their physical and spiritual health. Washat and Feather religion ceremonies begin with a meal of salmon and water from the Columbia River.

“Many children’s first memories are [of] sitting at the ceremonial table waiting for the water, fish and other traditional foods,” Washines wrote.

To Sohappy and the other fishers on the Great River, they were maintaining the relationship between the People, the Salmon, and the Great River—a relationship that is both gift from, and a responsibility to, the Creator. Because of their courage and sacrifice, their descendants carry on that relationship today.

“A lot of people don't know the Salmon Scam story,” said Sohappy’s grandnephew, Yakama artist Toma Villa, who lives at Suquamish. “[He was] a veteran that fought for the right for me to fish the river, and I appreciate his bravery … I wish I was down there [on the river] right now.”

‘Since Time Immemorial’

From the Yakama Nation Fisheries website:

The sacred relationship [of] the Yakama People, the Salmon, and the Columbia River was established in ancient times.

When the first people established themselves in this region, the Creator came and revealed that He was going to make human beings. He advised the first people to take care of these new beings. After lengthy discussions, it was so agreed that the first people would give of themselves to sustain the human beings and that the human beings would honor and take care of the first people. Then the Creator asked who [among the first people] would be the first to volunteer, and the Salmon came forward.

The relationship between the People, the Salmon, and the Columbia River is the foundation of the time-honored laws of the Yakama people: the laws that protect life and the cycles of nature and provide for human well-being; the laws that govern our longhouse traditions; the laws that support our practices, which have sustained the Yakama people since time immemorial.

The sacred relationship of the Yakama people, the Salmon, and the mighty Columbia River is based on an understanding that all life is intertwined and interdependent. Today, the Salmon has become the epitome of a time-honored agreement; fighting to survive, fighting to maintain their natural life cycle, fighting to honor their agreement with the Creator and the Yakamas.