Fish war general: Native hero's belated purple heart honors lifetime of activism

Sid Mills and his wife Suzette Bridges Mills (and family friend) wait for the Purple Heart presentation to begin on June 4 at the Lakewood City Hall. Photo: Frank Hopper

Frank Hopper

Sid Mills: "In the white man's army, I was a private. But in the Indian army, I was a general."

Yakima war hero Sid Mills recounts why he renounced the Army in 1968 and joined the fight for Native rights instead.

The one-lane driveway to Sid Mills' home in Yelm, Washington snakes through the forest for nearly a quarter of a mile, but to me it was more like a time machine, each curve transporting me further into the past to the Washington State Fish Wars of the '60s and '70s.

When we finally pulled up in front of Sid's house, I got out and heard the sound of the Nisqually River burbling invisibly in the forest behind the trees and undergrowth. The river sang of the many battles fought on its banks and of the warriors like Sid who had protected it.

Since the early ‘60s, Washington State Indians, primarily the Puyallup and Nisqually, fought game wardens for the right to fish with gill nets in their ancestral waters. The state said Native gill netting was hurting the commercial and sport fishing industries and routinely arrested Native fishermen and destroyed their nets. These fights for fishing rights were known as the “Fish Wars.”

Robert Free, another Fish War veteran, had brought me to see Sid. I wanted to talk to him about the possibility of writing a book about his life. Sid, a Yakima/Walla Walla Indian, was a fisherman who enlisted in the Army as a teenager and fought in Vietnam, winning a Purple Heart and then later renouncing the Army and fighting instead for Native rights.

Sid Mills and his friend Robert Free on horseback at Wounded Knee. Robert is on the left, and Sid is on the right. Russell Means is seen behind them wearing a plaid coat. From the collection of Robert Free.

As Robert and I approached the door, I knew the real reason for my coming was not to write a book. It was something else. I wanted to know where warrior heroes come from. Are they born, or are they made? The answer was more subtle and beautiful than I'd ever imagined.

Meeting the General

A week before, I attended an award ceremony in which Congressman Denny Heck presented 69-year-old Sid, called The General by all the old Fish War veterans, with the Purple Heart he won in 1967. In October of that year, Sid was blown 30 feet through the air when an enemy mortar round exploded near his head during a firefight with North Vietnamese soldiers in the jungle near Chu Lai.

Sid never received that medal due to an administrative oversight. Last year, his old friend Robert Free petitioned the government to redress the error, and I covered the June 4 presentation as a reporter for the Puyallup Tribal News. I thought, ‘what a terrific story,’ a Native version of the film Born on the Fourth of July.

Once inside, Robert, Sid and I chatted at the kitchen table. I showed Sid the article I'd written. He was a mountain of a man sporting a headband and two narrow braids of hair hanging down either side of his head. He bristled when he read I called him an early leader of the Survival of the American Indian Association.

"I wasn't a part of the SAIA," he said. "I fought alongside Al Bridges. You know who he was? Al Bridges was a Puyallup/Nisqually Indian who led the Fish War fish-ins. They called him the 'Silent Warrior' because he fought without insisting on getting credit."

Early warriors like Al Bridges and his wife Maiselle staged "fish-ins" where they fished with nets in clear view of authorities in order to get arrested and gain press coverage for their cause. Often, these arrests turned violent. They faced tear gas, billy clubs and fierce beatings. It became known as the Second Treaty War.

The first, known as the Puget Sound War, was fought in the mid-1800s and ended in the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty. Tribes like the Nisqually and the Puyallup ceded vast swaths of land to the government in exchange for some meager benefits and also for the guaranteed right to fish in their "usual and accustomed" waters.

The SAIA was an early Native organization dedicated to fighting for this treaty-protected right. I thought Sid was one of their leaders, but now he told me I was wrong.

I thought, wow, this is sure getting off to a good start. Five minutes here and I've already blown it. But Sid didn't immediately write me off as a hack. He tested me instead.

Sid Sizes Me Up

"Let me ask you," Sid said, "What are you trying to achieve with this interview?"

I stammered something about how I just wanted to record this part of Native history correctly. There aren't many Fish War veterans left.

What I didn't say was I wanted to meet a real warrior. I knew the teachings. A warrior is a servant to the tribe. Chopping wood and carrying water were just as much a part of being a Native warrior as fighting in battle. But there was something special about being willing to use a gun, risk a prison sentence, or even die if necessary. Over the years Sid had done all those things at places like Frank's Landing on the Nisqually River, Alcatraz, Fort Lawton in Seattle and Wounded Knee.

Sid squinted at me a few moments and said he appreciated me trying to give him the correct answer. He knew what I was searching for, even though I wasn't really sure myself. He proceeded to tell me what I wanted to know.

The Siren of Activism

"You have to remember, we were teenagers. When I got out of the Army, I was still only 19."

Sid told me he was on leave near Fort Lewis still recovering from his wounds, nearly a year after the firefight that almost killed him. He was out driving when a news report came over the radio about a Native fishing rights demonstration going on in Olympia, the state capital.

Sid decided to go. When he got there, he was struck by the speeches, in particular the speech of a young Native woman named Suzette Bridges, daughter of Al and Maiselle Bridges.

Suzette spoke of the unfair treatment of Native people, how they had endured near genocide, and how after World War II, the termination, relocation and assimilation practices of the federal government nearly destroyed Native culture. Suzette spoke passionately about how the State of Washington was now finishing the job of genocide by denying Native people the right to fish as they had been promised a century before.

Suzette Bridges and Sid Mills, ca. 1970, at Frank's Landing on the Nisqually River. Screenshot from the film "As Long As the Rivers Run," which is available on YouTube.

"And he was smitten!" Robert laughed.

"Well, I don't know about that," Sid said.

"He was won over by this beautiful Indian girl. He sidled up beside her and it was all over!"

"All right, Robert. Shut your lying cake hole. It wasn't anything like that."

"You know I'm right."

"Ok, well, Robert's delusional. You gotta forgive him. Anyways, what happened was... Well, it was sorta... Well it was pretty much like he says. I went back to the fish encampment with them. And after that... I couldn't go back to the Army," Sid confessed.

So there it was.

It would be unfair to say Sid's subsequent lifetime of Native activism was caused solely by Suzette. Sid grew up fishing on the Columbia River and knew first hand the pain of the government's oppression and near destruction of his people. His bravery, as tested in battle, was already evident. So were his intelligence and leadership qualities.

Sid spent six months in the stockade after renouncing the Army and later received a summary discharge without penalty due to the advocacy of then President Richard Nixon. He never looked back. "In the white man's Army I was a Private. But in the Indian Army I was a General."

It is worth reflecting on the previous week at the award ceremony in which Congressman Denny Heck presented 69-year-old Sid, called “The General” by all the old Fish War veterans, with the Purple Heart he earned in 1967.

Congressman Denny Heck presented 69-year-old Sid Mills with a well-deserved Purple Heart medal. Photo: Frank Hopper

Sid and Suzette married and had six children, Powohatten, Wa-helute, Wetekosh, Yesmowit, Yekbolsa and Kay. They've been together ever since.

“So that's where warrior heroes come from,” I thought. They are born, but they are also made by circumstance. And sometimes those circumstances are sweet.

A'ho, General.