THE DALLES, Oregon — Wilbur Slockish Jr. has been shot at, had rocks hurled at him. He hid underground for months, and then spent 20 months serving time in federal prisons across the country — all of that for fishing in the Columbia River.
But Slockish, a traditional river chief of the Klickitat Band of the Yakama Nation, would endure it all again to protect his right of access to the river and the fish that his people believe were bestowed to them by the Creator.
“It’s a sacred covenant,” he said. “Nothing’s more important.”
Tribal fishermen like Slockish have drawn the ire of commercial and sport fisherman as well as government officials over the decades for engaging in an act of faith. For Slockish and his ancestors, who have inhabited the Columbia River Basin “since the beginning of time,” stewardship of the land, the river and its fish, animals and plant life is a divine contract at the core of a millennia-old religious practice. They've fished in the river not just to practice their faith, but also to eke out a livelihood.
Tribal fishing rights along the Columbia have spurred bitter, drawn-out legal and legislative battles. This is despite an 1855 treaty with the federal government stating that the tribes would cede most of their lands, but retain their fishing rights.
In April 1983, Slockish and four other fishermen were convicted in U.S. District Court for selling salmon caught out of season to undercover federal agents in a sting that became known as “Salmon Scam.” Slockish was charged with illegally taking 16 fish from the river.
Tom Keefe Jr., a Washington-based civil rights lawyer who represented the fishermen in that case, said federal agents maintained 40,000 salmon were missing from the river but later discovered that the fish had migrated to tributaries because of pollution.
Keefe said that for Slockish and the other fishermen, the fight to save the river and its resources has always been about religious freedom. A practicing Catholic, Keefe said representing the fishermen gave him a window into the spiritual lives of the “river people.”
“To them the Columbia River is a giant cathedral that stretches from the mouth of the Pacific Ocean to the mountains of Canada," he said.
Slockish is “a man of integrity and commitment,” Keefe added. His voice cracked with emotion as he described the moment the Klickitat chief removed his wedding band right before heading to prison, placing it in Keefe's palm for safekeeping.
Slockish hasn’t stopped fighting for the river. After his release from prison, he focused his efforts on water quality and health issues related to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Benton County, Washington, which was decommissioned in 1989. The plant released significant amounts of radioactive waste into the river, causing irreparable ecological harm.
For the past two decades, Slockish has made presentations at local elementary schools around Thanksgiving about the spiritual significance of the river and its fish. He has represented the Yakama Nation on several river-related commissions and committees and still serves on the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the tribes and their rights along the river.
Slockish and the other fishermen’s high-profile case has helped bring attention to their issues and given tribes better access to the river, said Jeremy FiveCrows, the organization’s spokesman.
The 20 months Slockish spent in prison “were hell,” but it's all about keeping a promise he made as a 14-year-old — to the first salmon he ever caught — to be a good steward of the land.
Slockish still recalls the way that fish looked him “dead in the eye” as if to say: “I've done my job. Now you do yours.”