Treaty Series: Treaty of Medicine Creek & Fishing Rights

I recently read in Indian Country Today Magazine that “treaty fishing rights are meaningless if there are no healthy fish populations left to harvest.” This got me thinking about how promises can be diminished as time goes by.

Public domain clip art

Public domain clip art

Then it got me thinking about Article 3 of the Treaty of Medicine Creek, which guaranteed the Northwest tribes rights to fish without expiration.  Yet, this right was not enforced or even allowed until the 1974 decision by Judge George Boldt, which reaffirmed the tribe’s right to take fish along the waterways of their traditional fishing grounds.  But, again, if there are no healthy fish to harvest, then Boldt’s decision is almost a moot point. This is especially troubling as salmon is a way of life for the Swinomish Tribe, providing both a cultural and economic foundation.

The problem is not merely that the waterways in the state of Washington have been degraded since the treaty was signed in 1855 but also that the number of healthy salmon has been severely diminished. And now, to compound these existing problems, coal companies want to open even more port and shipping lanes along these fishing waterways so they can export coal to Asian markets.

Seemingly, this is a recipe for disaster and could prove catastrophic for the already strained fish populations. This is especially true since reports have shown that coal transportation can produce highly negative and destructive results.  If allowed, the coal transport could render the fishing rights of the Northwest Tribes virtually worthless.

Yet, there are no simple answers to such a complex set of issues. Much destruction has already resulted over the centuries. Should the coal companies be allowed to use the waterways as they wish?  Since the fishing rights of the Northwest Tribes are being upheld, is there even a cause for concern? Do the tribes have any say about how the waterways can be used, since their treaty rights to fish aren’t technically being violated? Diminished yes, but not eliminated or nullified.

Such a complex challenge to consider… and one that brings up deeper questions about treaties. When a treaty is written, it is written for the times. But, should that make it any less binding as time goes by? Should the provisions contained within the treaty be changed or lost as times change and decades or centuries pass? The answer is no. That said, it is also true that even when provisions or rights are upheld, the quality of those rights and provisions must be upheld as well.

For the sake of the salmon and the sake of the tribes, and for the sake of us all, I hope the coal companies do not further erode the waterways, and the quality of fish, and the rights of the tribes to healthy fish. And, I hope that there is a real and lasting and viable solution that will continue to serve the Northwest Tribes now and in centuries to come. I really do.

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