We the "Merciless Indian Savages"

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Sohappy v. Smith, the seminal fishing rights case.

We the "Merciless Indian Savages"

On a sweltering August afternoon, I find myself along the river at Columbia Hills State Park. A backdrop of rock rises upward, forming steps, giving the illusion that you could walk up into the clouds. As my sight adjusts to the brightness, pictures begin to leap out from amongst the rocks: eyes, mouths, and wings come together forming owls and mountain goats. I find familiarity in the images, similar to the spirals and figures that my own people used to adorn the red walls in the Southwest.

The wind carries the sounds of footsteps and voices. A large group begins to gather along a walkway in front of the petroglyphs. An archaeologist and ethnographer from Yakama Nation’s Cultural Resources Program leads us in step and story, along a winding path through rocks, grass, history, and tradition.

We are here to join in Yakama Nation’s River Walk, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Sohappy v. Smith, the seminal fishing rights case. In Sohappy, the court held that citizens of the Yakama Nation, Warm Springs, Umatilla, and Nez Perce tribes had a legal right to fish waters where their ancestors fished since time immemorial and limited state efforts to regulate that right. The lawsuit was filed after relentless, targeted state regulation of traditional tribal fishing practices. Tired of being arrested and having their gill nets and catch confiscated, 14 Yakama Nation and Wanapum plaintiffs filed suit against the Oregon Fish Commission alleging that the state’s regulations violated their rights as reserved in the Treaty of 1855. “The old people said, if you want to keep something you have to argue for it,” asserted David Sohappy Jr., the son of one of these plaintiffs. 

Sohappy represented a pinnacle, though by no means the end, of the Fish Wars: an organized series of civil disobedience actions during the 1960s and 1970s by Indian people and tribes to exercise their rights to fish throughout the country. However, the Fish Wars were more than just civil disobedience; they were a direct reaction to the criminalization, racism, and violence that met Indian people as they practiced their cultural and spiritual lifeways in their homelands.

After the River Walk, Yakama Nation remembers and celebrates this past by honoring the relatives of the plaintiffs who fought to preserve treaty rights. Young and old listen and observe, shouldering these stories, moments of triumph that seemed out of reach, reminding us to keep going. I met one of these young people, a student with a resume far too impressive to recount, with plans to attend law school. In good Indian fashion, not just her accomplishments and aspirations made a statement, but so did her T-shirt, which read “Merciless Indian Savages.” Quoted from the Declaration of Independence, these words are the description attributed to us Indian people by the founding fathers, this country’s architects of democracy, in the document that outlined the ideas and principles for a fair and just government.

Clearly, democracy never meant to include us all.

Entrenched in the American political agenda by a room of white, landowning men, the Constitution explicitly excluded Indians, slaves, and women from “We the People.” Since then, everyone aside from those privileged white men has fought to participate in democracy, and some have fought harder than others.

For those of us deliberately excluded from the lofty ideals that formed the foundation of the United States, what does democratic participation look like on the Columbia River? Sohappy is one example. The case echoed throughout Indian Country, strengthening tribal treaty rights and setting foundational legal precedent. Importantly, the case impacted spiritual, cultural, and ecological rights, all of which are inextricably intertwined with fishing, salmon, and the People of the river. However, the struggles and injustices endured by the 14 plaintiffs, as well as countless other Indian people whose names are lost to history, did not end in 1969.

The 1980s added yet another chapter to the Fish Wars—the Salmonscam trials—resulting in trumped-up federal charges and the incarceration of one of the Sohappy plaintiffs. David Sohappy was unjustly prosecuted by federal and state officials who viewed him and his tribe’s wins in the court with animosity. “I don’t think there’s any question of racism behind what happened to David Sohappy and his son and the other defendants,” explained Phil Stanford, a journalist who covered the sting operation. “[I]t happened to Sohappy because he’s inconvenient and because he’s an Indian.”

While Sohappy affirmed a treaty-guaranteed right to fish, David Sohappy’s legacy proved that applying the ruling in practice would still have Indians paying the price. Chapters will continue to be added as Indian people fight to assert our rights, yet I take solace in celebrating and remembering those who have gotten us where we are today and inspire us to keep going. Thank you Richard Sohappy, Aleck Sohappy, David Sohappy, Myra Sohappy, Clara Sohappy, James Alexander, James Alexander Jr., Leo Alexander, Clifford Alexander, Henry Alexander, Andrew Jackson, Roy Watlamet, Shirley McConville, and Clarence Tahkeal.


We the People Issue: How your Columbia Riverkeeper membership is promoting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the 50th anniversary of the seminal case Sohappy v. Smith; and annual financial report.