PORTLAND, Ore. – Recently the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Portland Oregonian newspapers blared out news that the Yakama Nation had pulled out of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. At issue, the reports said, were unfair fishing citations, with the major controversy surrounding Jeff Sohappy – nephew of David Sohappy Sr., who drew national attention after he was jailed in a salmon sting two decades ago.
Last September, when Jeff Sohappy pulled a net full of dead fish from the family’s fishing site, he was cited by CRITFC enforcement authorities for wasting fish. More, CRITFC officials told the 49-year-old Sohappy he would have to appear in an Oregon state court instead of tribal courts, where cases related to tribal members are normally heard.
“They’re just getting too damn big-headed,” said Jeff Sohappy. “They’re exercising authority that was never delegated to them.”
This is not the first time the Yakamas have chafed under the regulations of CRITFC. According to an Associated Press article published in the Oregonian, after “David Sohappy Sr. was sentenced to five years for selling some three hundred fish to undercover federal agents in 1987 … Yakama tribal members narrowly voted to pull out of the commission, but tribal leaders failed to act on that vote and other similar votes later.”
The Herald-Republic got a quote from the tribal chairman: “They’re just trying to claim that they’re the head of the whole Columbia River, but they’re not,” said Louis Cloud. “We have our own enforcement. We don’t need Inter-Tribal. We have our own regulations. We are the only tribe on the Columbia River that has permanent fishing regulations.”
Where the story started breaking down, though, was when John Johnson, CRITFC enforcement chief, issued his puzzled response. “If we hadn’t taken immediate action, then we could have gotten in trouble for derelict of duty. The bottom line is, we’re responsible for protecting the resources,” he said.
Johnson also noted that things haven’t change since last fall, or for that matter, in the months since January. “I have no hostilities with the tribe. Tribal members still call us, still consider us their law enforcement, and we still respond to a lot of Yakama calls.”
“The story is inaccurate,” said Charles Hudson, public relations officer at CRITFC, who added that the organization “has not received any notification that the Yakama nation has revoked or rescinded or removed themselves in any way from the commission.”
The Yakama Nation also released a statement attesting to the erroneous nature of the story. “There had been no tribal council action to withdraw from the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission,” said the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Committee Chairman, Sam Jim Sr. “CRITFC staff is committed and technically competent and are in regular consultation with tribal staff and policy makers.”
While the current situation seems to have been resolved, the false alarm raised an issue that is often left out of the discussion: How is it that the four autonomous Columbia River tribes that so fiercely defend their sovereignty have been able to join forces so successfully for well over 25 years? Indeed, CRITFC’s offices are in Portland, far from the centers of tribal power and removed from the rural setting in which fishermen and their families live. More, at first glance, the highly structured organization seems at odds with both individual and community independence that is the hallmark of Native life.
The key has been CRITFC’s consensus-style approach to decision-making. Everyone has to be on board if an idea has a chance of moving forward. That means each of the board members from the four tribes has to give their blessing to plans or strategies in order for any action to proceed. Board members in turn, of course, have to have the approval of the people they represent.
It makes for a slow, deliberate process and oftentimes no one’s entirely happy with the outcome. But it’s a way to truly cooperate, and that’s what the tribes have always been about – channeling autonomy and sovereignty and independence into community.