The old bridge where police officers gathered in preparation to raid the Puyallup Fish Camp on the banks of the Puyallup River 49 years ago on September 9, 1970, is getting a new name: “Yabuk’ʷali” meaning “place of a fight” in Twulshootseed.
The newly remodeled bridge officially reopened on September 14 and will be more commonly referred to by its new English name, The Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge.
In 1970, approximately sixty Native people from the Puyallup, Nisqually and many other tribes from around the nation were tear-gassed, clubbed, shot at, thrown to the ground and handcuffed that day before being taken to jail. Their crime? Fishing. And fighting to maintain the tribes’ right to do so.
“I’m humbled to be standing here today,” Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said at the August 9 dedication ceremony, “humbled and honored that while we cannot correct history, we have to acknowledge it.”
A bridge to the past
The old Puyallup River Bridge originally opened in 1927 and formed one of the last segments of the Pacific Highway, known to the locals as Highway 99. The bridge links Tacoma with the nearby city of Fife to the east and skirts the northern boundary of the Puyallup Indian Reservation. Only half of the old bridge has actually been replaced, the two sections crossing over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific train tracks. The rest of the bridge, the green steel truss section that spans the Puyallup River where the raid took place remains unchanged.
This combination of old and new speaks volumes to the Puyallup tribe’s relationship with the city of Tacoma. For many decades the city encroached on Indian land with industrial development and persecuted tribal fishermen for using gill nets in the Puyallup River. The state of Washington said gill net fishing by Indians was illegal, even though the Puyallup and other Washington tribes reserved their right to hunt on open and unclaimed lands and to fish in their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations” in several treaties with the federal government signed in the mid-1800s.
“I want to underscore that this fishing war started long before the actual war that happened here,” Puyallup elder Roberta Basch told the August 9 dedication gathering held on the newly completed bridge.
Basch recounted how as a child she brought food to her father Ruben Wright Sr. while he was setting his net in the river. She said she recalled the many times he was taken to jail for fishing where their ancestors had fished for millennia.
“I remember one time underneath this bridge,” she told the gathering, “down at the trestle, we were crossing, middle of the night we were going to check, cousin Paul Matheson, David Matheson, my brother Ruben, many of us went across that trestle in the nighttime, pitch black. Suddenly, the lights came on, hundreds of them, state police, vigilantes, guns pointing right at us and we had nothing. And I was a young, young person then, just a little kid. There were many people arrested that night. My cousin Paul was beaten up. He had to spend some time in the hospital.”
The causes of the harassment were both racist and financial. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife did not want the Native fishermen to reduce the catch of commercial and sports fishermen.
Nancy Shippentower, another Puyallup elder, whose mother was one of the founders of the Survival of the American Indian Association, also spoke at the dedication, remembering the attitude of then-Governor Albert Rosellini when Shippentower was a young woman.
“Rosellini’s big thing when he was the governor was, ‘This is going to be a sportsman’s paradise! For fishing and hunting and crabbing and taking the clams and everything.’ He did a good job of it. Well, who’s going to clean up the mess? Who’s going to clean all this up? The orcas are dying!”
The Fish Camp raid
Puyallup Tribal Chair David Bean introduced the final tribal elder to speak at the dedication, 81-year-old Ramona Bennett, a former tribal chair, who was the leader of the fish camp when it was raided 49 years ago.
“She came back when we weren’t even a tribe,” Bean said, speaking of when Bennett was first elected to the tribal council in 1968, a time the Puyallup were dangerously close to disappearing as a federally-recognized tribe.
Bennett spoke with characteristic charm and clarity. She explained that she was taught that every river had a tribe of people placed near it to protect the salmon.
“To me,” she said, “the fishing rights struggle was to establish our right to harvest so we had a right to protect.”
Bennett described how the Puyallup Fish Camp was started to protect the tribal fishermen, because on every river in the state they were being harassed, beaten and fined. Since this persecution happened mainly at night in remote locations, no one saw it.
According to Pueblo Robert Free, an early member of the intertribal organization the Indians of All Tribes and writer for the organizations’ newsletter, most of the occupants of the Puyallup Fish Camp were from many parts of the country outside Washington state and Canada.
Many were veterans of the Alcatraz takeover of fall 1969. These came in response to a request by Nisqually leader Al Bridges and his wife Maisele, who had gone to Alcatraz with Allison Bridges and Yakima Vietnam veteran Sid Mills seeking help in their fight for fishing rights. After hearing of the plight of the Washington tribes, these out-of-state members of the Indians of All Tribes came without hesitation and willingly went to jail after the raid, often for weeks.
At first, the camp was peaceful. Families with young children came. Eventually, a Coeur d’Alene Indian and social worker named Pauline Matheson brought a gun. No one asked her to give it up. She was another founding member of the Survival of the American Indian Association and knew first hand how brutally the police treated Indian fishermen. She vowed to shoot any game warden or police officer who laid a hand on her son.
The vibe of the camp changed after that. Another person brought a gun, then another. Most of the guns came from the out-of-state Indians of All Tribes allies, according to Robert Free. Free himself reports he brought a case of shotguns and a case of shotgun shells. Soon, all the Native security officers were visibly armed with rifles and shotguns. Even though the state knew the camp was armed, they did nothing.
It wasn’t until someone from the Tacoma Health Department demanded the camp be cleared out that authorities sent in law enforcement to shut them down. Bennett later noted to Indian Country Today the irony of the state sending armed officers in riot gear in response to an official request intended to protect their health.
At the dedication, Bennett described how on the day of the raid she saw the police amassing on the bridge, the section spanning the river, which has not been replaced.
“They were all lined up and I swear to God,” she said, “if you looked up at it, it looked like a porcupine because there were rifles every couple of feet the whole length of the bridge.”
Bennett estimates there were 500 officers sent to clear out the camp. According to footage of the raid in the film As Long As the Rivers Run, which is available on YouTube, her estimate isn’t far off.
“They came down on us hard,” she remembers, “and the media was here.”
Photographers and film camera people captured everything as it occurred in the bright morning sunlight. Soon images and footage of the brutal arrests were beamed all over the world.
“People from Connecticut to Japan were watching their televisions thinking they were watching John Wayne Theatre, and here it was us! Being dragged and clubbed and gassed! And there was an outcry! And as a result of that outcry, there was the U.S. versus Washington and eventually the Boldt Decision,” Bennett said, referring to federal Judge George Boldt’s 1974 decision that Washington’s treaty tribes were entitled to half the state’s yearly harvest of salmon.
A bridge to the future
“It was all about the right to protect the salmon, which is what we’re here for! And we’re so not done! We are so not done!” Bennett said, speaking about the tribe’s current fight against Puget Sound Energy’s 8-million gallon liquefied natural gas plant currently being built in the Puyallup River estuary, which the city and Port of Tacoma seem to be enabling.
“We’re still here,” she said in closing. “We’re not going anywhere. If those salmon die, we die. And we’re not going down without a fight!”
A later visit to the bridge by Indian Country Today found a Puyallup man and his son fishing in the river of their ancestors. The father, William Ranes, watched from the banks as his son Ryan cast a line into the river just beneath the bridge where officers once massed.
Ranes said he remembered the Fishing Wars and pointed to the land where the Fish Camp was, which he said is now ceremonial ground. In the distance, perfectly framed above the river stood Mount Rainier, known by Native people for thousands of years by its Twulshootseed name “təˡqʷuʔbəʔ,” which means “mother of waters.”
The Puyallup River, a child of that mountain, is now ironically the second most polluted river in the state, rife with chemicals like PCBs, which are harming salmon runs.
The warrior spirit that manifested years ago during the Fishing Wars continues today in an unbroken lineage of Puyallup water warriors who fight bureaucracy and greed to save their relatives the salmon. Far from simply “acknowledging” the past with cosmetic name changes and half-completed restorations, the water warriors fighting the liquefied natural gas plant keep tribal history alive, protecting the river and its occupants as their ancestors did. And they are so not done.
Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now lives in Tacoma.