OLYMPIA - Nearly half a century after hundreds of American Indians were arrested during the Northwest “Fish Wars”, a proposed state bill would give those who were convicted a chance to clear their records.
Along with arrests, American Indians were repeatedly harassed and beaten while trying to exercise their treaty rights to fish, according to Hank Adams, a Sioux-Assiniboine tribal advocate.
“Fish-ins” - illegal encampments modeled after the sit-ins of the civil rights movement - were set up by American Indian fishermen along the shores. The ongoing disputes between American Indians and authorities became a national controversy in the 1960s and ‘70s known as the Fish Wars.
For some who participated in the fish-ins, criminal records have prevented them from traveling outside of the country, adopting children and employment opportunities.
“I just thought it was pretty absurd that it’s 2013 and nothing has been done about this yet,” said Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, prime sponsor of House Bill 2080, which was introduced last year. “It was well past due.”
The community development, housing and tribal affairs committee held a public hearing last Tuesday for the bill.
House Bill 2080 would allow those convicted while exercising treaty rights before 1975 to vacate their criminal records. The sentencing court would have discretion to decide whether or not they were using their treaty rights in expunging the misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony convictions.
The 1974 Boldt Decision in United States v. Washington affirmed the right of land-owning treaty tribes to harvest and co-manage salmon fisheries. This decision was later affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The disputes between American Indian fishermen and state authorities lasted several years.
According to Adams, authorities would often use heavy-handed tactics during raids and arrests.
During an encounter on Sept. 9, 1970, policemen used tear gas, clubs and shotguns to arrest 60 people camped along the Puyallup River.
“They would literally drag people out of canoes. It was targeted and intentional,” Sawyer said. “It was one of the worst chapters in Washington state history.”
Adams thinks the bill needs to be expanded. “This measure is more symbolic than significant and will have very few applications,” he said.
“In some ways we see this as an attempt to rectify past harms done to Indian people,” Adams said.
“But we think it might be best if it’s amended to let a tribal agency or direct descendants petition for a vacation of those convictions.”
“I think this is a start,” said Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribe elder and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “We can take part in this and make it better.”
Many of the demonstrators during the Fish Wars of the 1960s and ‘70s are now deceased, making them ineligible for expunction of their records under the measure as currently worded.
Frank, now 82, is one of the few surviving members of those arrested and jailed during the conflicts. He was first arrested for asserting his treaty-protected fishing rights when he was 14 years old. From then on he was arrested more than 50 times, he said in an interview.
Despite numerous, aggressive arrests, Frank has no convictions on his record. All of his offenses were civil infractions for violating court injunctions brought against tribes for fishing.
Frank and other tribal leaders hope to see those offenses included in the bill.
“For now, we have owned up to our mistakes,” said Sawyer. “I think we still have a long way to go.