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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

Women were just emerging as forces in Washington state politics in the 1970s when Lorraine Loomis stepped in as a commissioner of the newly formed Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

A one-time fish processor who became fisheries manager of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Loomis by then was already deep into a 50-year fight to protect salmon habitat and fishing rights for Washington’s Indigenous people.

Her death on Aug. 10, 2021, at age 81, brought tributes from across the nation for her decades of work.

“She was really one of a kind,” Nisqually Tribe Chairman Willie Frank III — son of longtime civil and environmental rights leaders Billy Frank Jr. — said Saturday, Aug. 14, as he arrived at Swinomish for a memorial service for Loomis.

“She had that leadership ability to be able to control a room of over a hundred guys, both tribal and state — control the whole tone of the meeting,” he said. “She was passionate in her energy and commitment to salmon and natural resources.”

The fisheries commission was created after a federal judge ruled in 1974 in U.S. v. Washington that treaties signed by tribes and the U.S. a century earlier preserved the tribes’ rights to fish in their usual and accustomed areas. For years, state officials had tried to impose state fishing regulations that favored non-Native commercial and recreational fishers onto tribal members. With the U.S. v. Washington case, the state found itself working with 20 treaty tribes as co-managers of the state’s fish populations.

Loomis worked closely with Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, to bring opposing sides together to agree on catch limits each fishing season and to do the habitat restoration work necessary to ensure salmon would be around for future generations.

Lorraine Loomis sits with longtime rights and environmental leader Billy Frank Jr. at a meeting of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which was formed in 1975. Loomis served more than 40 years on the commission and replaced Frank as commission chairperson in 2014. She died Aug. 10, 2021 at age 81. Frank died in 2014. (Photo courtesy of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission)

Puyallup Tribal Council member Fred Dillon, who met Loomis in 2006 when he served as his tribe’s natural resources policy representative, told of participating in negotiations among various parties.

“She would encourage us to make sure we settled in the best interests of the resource,” Dillon said. “There were so many parts being played, so many players, and she did a tremendous job of getting people together — getting the right people together and getting everybody involved. I remember she used to say, ‘We don’t leave the meeting until the work is done.’ And we would not end the meeting until we made a decision. There were times when we would be meeting at 3 a.m. She was the one that kept us together.

“She took tremendous pride in resolving things and getting the right co-managers and the right entities together in the room and making it happen.”

Loomis worked as a fish processor beginning in 1970 and became Swinomish’s fisheries manager in 1974. She became a commissioner of the fisheries commission when the treaty tribes formed the organization in 1975 to assist them in fisheries management and habitat restoration.

She was involved in developing and implementing the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty of 1985 and served on the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Fraser River Panel, which manages the sockeye and pink salmon fishery. She was lead negotiator for tribes in the salmon fisheries planning process with the State of Washington.

Loomis served as vice chairperson of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission from 1995 to 2014, when she became chairwoman following the passing of Billy Frank Jr. She received the Billy Frank Jr. Leadership Award in 2020.

“For more than four decades, Lorraine worked tirelessly to preserve the health of our environment and recover Pacific salmon populations Pacific Northwest Tribes rely on,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, said in a statement released the day Loomis died. “As the chairperson of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, she was a leading light for tribes throughout the region, fostering cooperation and consensus, and raising up everyone around her to make sure future generations may fish.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also praised Loomis’ work over the decades.

“She was a strong leader and tireless advocate for tribal treaty rights,” he said. “As a tribal elder, community leader and friend to many, her gentle voice will echo loudly for future generations. … Washington is a little less bright without her."

A smile and a hug mixed with toughness

By the time of the U.S. v. Washington ruling in 1974, salmon populations had been depleted by a century of commercial and recreational overfishing. Concrete bulkheads installed to protect waterfront homes stopped erosion that provided beaches with gravel for spawning. Culverts cut salmon off from their natural streams. Stormwater runoff carried industrial pollution, fertilizers, leaked oils and fuels to the sea.

In negotiations — whether working for habitat restoration, setting catch limits on fishing, or pushing for regulatory changes — Loomis was a mixture of warmth and steadfastness in her defense of salmon and treaty rights. Dillon remembered she always had “a beautiful smile and a great hug.”

Loomis also carried science to the negotiation table. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission staff includes finfish and shellfish biologists, habitat biologists, conservation planners, policy analysts, oceanographers, marine resource specialists, and a forest practices coordinator. Their work, as well as the work done by commission-member tribes, informs such comprehensive reports as “State of Our Watershed” and “Treaty Rights at Risk,” as well as harvest reports and fishery resource bulletins.

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“Treaty Rights at Risk” spells out a dire future unless further action is taken.

“We are losing the battle for salmon recovery in western Washington because the salmon habitat is being damaged and destroyed faster than it can be restored,” the report states. “Despite massive cuts in harvest, careful use of hatcheries, and a huge financial investment in restoration during the past four decades, salmon continue to decline along with their habitat.”

Lorraine Loomis, right, chairperson of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, receives the Billy Frank Jr. Leadership Award in October 2020. Also pictured are, from left, Peggen Frank, Billy Frank Jr.'s daughter-in-law; Justin Parker, fisheries commission executive director;  Willie Frank III, Billy Frank Jr.'s son; and fisheries vice chair Shawn Yanity. (Photo courtesy of the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission)

Loomis proposed a solution in her final column, Being Frank, which is published in the Northwest Treaty Tribes magazine.

“We know that urban development is linked to many of our environmental problems, including air and water pollution, and habitat loss,” she wrote Aug. 5, five days before she died. “The only way for salmon to come out ahead is to protect against the loss of their habitat before development occurs. Urban planners do this all the time when they account for the impacts that development will have on traffic and utilities. Why don’t we do it for the ecosystem? …

“We need to take a hard look at how we live here, so that we can all continue to thrive in a way that respects the environment.”

Broad praise

Tributes poured in after her death.

Steve Robinson, who served for 26 years as public affairs manager and policy analyst for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said Loomis instilled confidence in everyone who worked for her.

“Lorraine was an outstanding environmental warrior and peacemaker,” he said. “She was dedicated to the 'nth' degree to bringing back the salmon — and protecting wildlife and gathering and harvesting resources — so people could fish, but also so they could be restored for future generations…

“She could be very tough in some of the U.S.-Canada [fisheries] negotiations, and in negotiations with the state or the feds — whatever the natural resource/treaty protected interest. It was a real joy working with her. I’ll miss her.”

Steve Edwards, chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, said her loss is deeply felt.

“Lorraine was not only the director of the Swinomish Fisheries program for more than 45 years and the chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, she was also the revered matriarch of a large Swinomish family,” he said in a statement. “Please join us in prayers for her family in the difficult days ahead.”

Justin Parker, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission executive director, said Loomis had a profound impact on the region.

“Our hearts are heavy with the loss of Lorraine Loomis, who dedicated her life to defending tribal treaty rights,” Parker said. “Our thoughts are with [her] family and the entire Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. She also was the matriarch of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission family, leading us for decades in fisheries management.”

Officials with the fisheries commission issued a statement about her death.

“We have been rocked by another tremendous loss,” Shawn Yanity, chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe and commission vice chairman, said in the commission announcement. “Her powerful leadership, guidance, friendship and presence will be missed.”

W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and a fisheries commissioner, compared her work to that of Billy Frank Jr.

“I can’t put in words how much I’m going to miss her spirit in my world,” Allen said. “She made a difference for all of us just like Billy. Now we have both their spirits to keep us moving forward to protect and restore our salmon.”

Loomis is survived by three adult children, two brothers, 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews.

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