Before building dams on the Columbia River, the U.S. guaranteed the tribes of the Pacific Northwest salmon forever. But the system it created to prevent the extinction of salmon has failed, and a way of life is ending.
April 2022, early spring Chinook season
Last year’s tribal catch: 1,605,000 lbs (worst spring season in 22 years)
The salmon were late and the nets were empty.
Two weeks had passed since the Yakama Nation opened its ceremonial and subsistence spring fishing season on the Columbia River. Randy Settler and Sam George had spent $400 on gas for their boats, and had just two fish so far to give to their tribe for ceremonies.
This year’s salmon fishing was forecast to be better than last year’s. But it was the slowest start to a season that Settler could remember. It was also his first season without his mother, Mary Goudy-Settler, who died in October 2021.
Settler was sitting in the riverside house that used to be hers, reflecting on all that had been taken from his family, all his parents had done to claw back what they could. They had fought for their right to fish, a right the U.S. government promised to honor more than 150 years ago and then violated generation after generation through laws, policies and flat-out discrimination. He inherited that fight. Now, with climate change threatening the remaining salmon runs, he thinks about the legacy they left for him, the one he’ll pass down to his nephew, George, and to George’s 10-year-old daughter.
“Áwna sɨ́nwit UllaQut’.” His eyes welled up when he introduced himself by the Yakama name his mother gave him.
“But I’ve never claimed that name,” Settler, 67, later said.
The name, UllaQut’, translates to “frog.” It means more than that.
Mary Goudy-Settler and tribal elders bestowed it in a traditional ceremony when her son was 42, the same year he was elected to the governing council of their tribe.
It is a variant on the name of a famous war chief, one that Settler is tied to through his family’s lineage. To carry that name, he said, “you have to be a big deal in Indian Country.”
He has spent a lot of his life trying to live up to it.
June 1855, spring Chinook season
Estimated yearly catch: Over 10,000,000 lbs
Settler’s great-great-great-grandfather was one of the signers of the treaties.
Tuekakas, also known as Old Chief Joseph, chief of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce, had been an early adopter of Christianity among Native people and an advocate of peace with white settlers. He brought his sons with him to the treaty council: Young Joseph and Ollokot, the original Frog.
But the chief’s faith in that peace was shaken when, a few years after the 1855 treaty, the U.S. government seized nearly all of the tribe’s remaining land. It claimed this was permitted under a new treaty that had been signed by other members of the Nez Perce.
Tuekakas refused to acknowledge the new treaty. He tore up the Bible he’d been given by missionaries, disavowed the government and gave his sons a warning: “When you go into council with a white man, always remember your country,” he told them. “Do not give it away. The white man will cheat you out of your home.”
After their father’s death, Ollokot’s older brother became the tribe’s recognized leader, later to achieve fame as Chief Joseph. Ollokot became a war chief. After their band of the Nez Perce refused to move to a smaller reservation, the U.S. Army hunted them down.
Ollokot led severely outnumbered Nez Perce warriors to many victories in battle, repeatedly fending off U.S. forces that pursued them for more than 1,000 miles as they fled toward safe haven in Canada.
U.S. troops finally overwhelmed the Nez Perce 40 miles from the Canadian border. There, at the Battle of Bear Paw on Sept. 30, 1877, Ollokot was killed.
His brother, the chief, surrendered within the week. The surviving Nez Perce weren’t allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest for another 10 years.
Across the Columbia Basin, tribes had been left with just a sliver of their lands. The treaties still protected their right to fish, but that was not to last.
March 1957, spring Chinook season
Yearly catch at Celilo Falls (pre-dam): 1,894,000 lbs
In the run-up to dam construction, the federal government forced Native people out of fishing villages along the Columbia.
Alvin Settler and Mary Goudy-Settler were relocated to the Yakama’s inland reservation and told to try farming. But they weren’t farmers. They struggled to feed their four children and themselves.
Alvin knew The Dalles Dam would mean the destruction of Celilo, and the end of the way he and his family had always fished. He also needed money.
So he went to work building the dam.
“They did it for survival,” Randy said of his father and other relatives who helped build the dam.
Several years after the dam was completed, the Settlers returned to the river, even without Celilo, for the only life they knew: fishing.
They settled in a shanty village called Lone Pine, in the shadow of The Dalles Dam. It was one of 31 treaty fishing access sites the government offered tribes after damming and destroying their usual fishing grounds.
Randy remembers finding spearheads and beadwork in the dirt where he played and thinking about how old they might be.
The government forbade people from building permanent homes on those sites. So, on the banks of the river that had long ago made their families wealthy, the Settlers and their four kids made their home in a corrugated tin shed built for drying salmon.
“If the sun was out, we roasted. When it was cold, we froze,” Randy said.
Throughout Randy’s grade school years, they lived, cooked and slept in that one-room shed with no electricity and no running water.
He remembers showing up dirty to school, where he and the other kids from Lone Pine would be stripped down and showered off in the boiler room.
They drank river water, bathed in river water and lived off what they could catch, eating fish or selling it to afford fruit and potatoes.
“When we had fish, we could eat. When we didn’t have fish, we pretty much starved,” Settler said.
When boat hulls or engines needed repair, the family couldn’t buy food. Randy remembers an $1,800 boat repair bill that prompted him and his older brother, Carl, to learn how to work with fiberglass themselves. The youngest of four siblings, Randy began operating his own boat when he was 9.
His parents, along with fellow fishing families at the river, started getting more assertive about their rights to catch and sell fish, defying the many state regulations meant to limit their ability to do so.
“It was a war for survival,” Settler said.
The Fish Wars, as they are often known in the Northwest, were about to begin.
April 1966, spring Chinook season
Yearly catch: 294,000 lbs
On April 26, 1966, the headline of the morning Oregonian read, “Rifle-Toting Indians Go Fishing.”
Below it was a photo of a Native man, smiling with a 16-pound spring Chinook salmon, while his friend stood guard, one-handing a rifle pointed into the air.
They didn’t have state permits to fish, and they’d been getting harassed by non-Natives at the river and targeted by police. But they didn’t need state permission to fish, they said. They’d had the right since time immemorial, and the treaties said so.
The armed guards, Alvin Settler told the newspaper, seemed to be “the only way we can get justice.”
By the time Randy saw his dad in the paper, he was used to his parents being arrested for fishing. He was about 8 the first time he saw them dragged into a police car, and he cried.
Eventually, he’d get arrested, too.
Sometimes the police would stop by The Dalles Wahtonka High School to see if he was there. If he wasn’t, they knew to search along the river for his family.
More often than not, though, teenage Randy Settler was there in school, frequently asleep during first-period history. He’d spend all night setting nets and the early morning pulling them and trucking the catch over to his mom. When he got to school, he’d slip into the back of the classroom and nod off.
“I didn’t mind sleeping through manifest destiny,” he said.
The Settlers became one of the most aggressive commercial fishing families on the river. Alvin, who’d later become a tribal judge, taught himself the law and began to test the limits of the state’s authority over tribal fishing.
Mary Goudy-Settler and Alvin Settler took such a hard line on treaty rights, and racked up so many fishing violations, that one of the Yakama Nation’s council members tried to distance them from tribal government.
But they were building something.
Goudy-Settler told the Yakama Nation Review at the time that while tribal council was worried they’d jeopardize the tribe’s relationship with the state, “all I could think of was the despair of the Indians.”