‘Salmon Wars’ episode 2: The treaties

By Tony Schick (OPB) and Julie Sabatier (OPB)
March 13, 2024 12:01 p.m.
Aiyana George with her dad, Sam, at the end of a long day of fishing on the Columbia River in 2021.

Aiyana George with her dad, Sam, at the end of a long day of fishing on the Columbia River in 2021.

Katie Campbell / ProPublica


The “Salmon Wars” podcast series tells the story of salmon in the Northwest in a way you haven’t heard before — through the voices of one Yakama Nation family who have been fighting for salmon for generations.

To understand the war over salmon, we have to go back to 1855. That’s when chiefs from the Yakama Nation and other Pacific Northwest tribes signed treaties that are still used as the basis for laws and policies around salmon fishing. Some tribal members believe the Yakama signed a treaty under duress. In some ways, this document represents the first of a multigenerational series of promises the U.S. government made and broke. It also created a powerful legal framework the Yakama still use to advocate for fishing rights.

Our theme music is by Kele Goodwin and Sean Ogilvie.

Special thanks to Katie Campbell and Sarah Blustain at ProPublica.


Sam George: Better wear my rain pants. My lucky ones.

Aiyana George: Isn’t it easier to take off your boots?

SG: No. There’s a system to it. You telling me how to fish?? Huh??

AG: No!

Tony Schick: It’s mid-April on the Columbia River. Sam George and his daughter Aiyana are at their favorite place in the world: fish camp. The fish camp is a small community beside the river where tribal people live during salmon season. Sam, you might remember, is a fisherman and member of the Yakama Nation. You heard him get a new name in our first episode.

SG: I fish for salmon, and pretty much whatever else we catch I guess.

TS: Right now Sam’s on his way down to the dock, to hop on a boat with his uncle Randy and check nets.

SG: You got your phone? So I’m gonna be gone for like about 45 minutes, hopefully.

TS: Aiyana watches her dad and Randy disappear upriver, then heads back up to camp.

SG: Here we come, fishies! [ bangs on side of boat ]

TS: They’re two weeks into the fishing season, and they’d hoped for hundreds of salmon. So far, their nets have been empty. That’s bad news for their family, and for the other people who rely on the fish they catch. Those empty nets are also a symbol of all the promises our government made and broke. This is “Salmon Wars.” I’m Tony Schick.


TS: I had driven by this fishing community, known as Stanley Rock, more times than I can count and never paid attention to it. From Interstate 84, about an hour east of Portland, it just looks like a rest area: a brick bathroom building and some boats, trucks and trailers. But for Aiyana, it’s essentially home. She and Sam live here during fishing season. So, whenever she’s not in school. Their camper trailer is overflowing with her canvas paintings and various arts and crafts projects. Aiyana waits here in camp for about an hour, then wanders back to the dock in a warm puffy coat as her dad and Randy drift back in.

SG: Good day today. We caught one fish!

TS: Sam points to a line of mooring rope hanging over the side of the silver boat.

SG: Pull me in please. Same team, buddy. Same longhouse.

TS: Sam climbs off the boat and throws an arm around Aiyana, they walk up the dock together.

AG: I’m surprised we got a fish.

SG: You surprised?

AG: Yeah.

SG: What do you mean, you’re surprised?

AG: Because this spring we haven’t got any! Are we gonna eat it?

SG: No, it’s for the longhouse, baby.

AG: Oh …

TS: If you’re not familiar with longhouses, the best analog I can come up with is church. Sam calls it that, too. It’s where people gather to pray, to celebrate, to mourn, to mark their life’s biggest events.

SG: The longhouse to me is like a church. Each longhouse is different. They have different rules, different times they do things, different things they do.

TS: Salmon is essential for longhouses. It’s part of weekly gatherings, funerals and other ceremonies. This includes First Foods Ceremonies, Root Feasts, Berry Feast and the First Salmon Ceremony. Each spring fishermen offer up their catch to fill the tribe’s stockpiles before they can keep any for themselves. There’s three categories of fishing for tribes: ceremonial, subsistence and commercial. Ceremonial fishing happens before anything else.

SG: They get what they want and we get to fish, and that makes me happy.

AG: It feels nice that we’re giving away.

TS: So, today’s one fish needs to go on ice in the back of Sam’s truck. Aiyana climbs up into the truck bed to help. But she has a little trouble.

AG: Uhhh! Can’t!

SG: Grab onto my arm. Come on little legs.

TS: Aiyana’s eager to learn the hard parts of life as a fisherwoman. She knows the rhythms of fishing season like any member of the crew. I’ve seen her in waders with a fishing knife so many times [that] it’s easy to forget she’s just a kid — a kid who totes a stuffed animal around camp sometimes when she doesn’t feel well. Once she’s up in the truck, Sam tries to get her to help move the long, white cooler closer to the edge where he can heave the fish into it.

SG: Pull that cooler over here. Oh my God, Aiyana. Open it. No, no, no, no. You just locked it. Lift it up please. You’ve got the latch. There you go. OK. Grab that fish and those potatoes. (ice sound)

TS: Then father and daughter sit and relax, swinging their legs off the edge of the truck bed.

SG: You’re supposed to help me.

AG: I did. <laugh>

SG: You’re supposed to know what to do. How come I had to tell you what to do?

TS: I notice the license plate behind Aiyana’s pink boots. It reads “Yakama Nation. Treaty of 1855.” That’s the treaty that made this father-daughter moment possible. For now, at least. As they sit and talk about plans for the next few days of fishing, their uncle Randy walks over with a plan for dinner. And, of course, it involves salmon.

Randy Settler: Check this out! Got three of ‘em.”

TS: He’s holding up a vacuum sealed package of bright orange fish labeled “Alaskan salmon.” He pulled it out of a food box donated by a local nonprofit.

RS: “Wild caught.”

SG: It’s not Native caught.

(Aiyana laughs)

TS: Sam’s quip — about the salmon they’re about to eat not being Native caught — that’s why the tribes signed treaties. It’s why, back in 1855, dozens of tribal leaders from across the region accepted an invitation from the U.S. government to gather in Eastern Washington for the Council of Walla Walla. There, they signed the treaty they hoped would preserve not just a food, but a way of life. The federal government, on behalf of all of us, has broken its promise to protect that way of life. Not just once, but again and again. And now, we’re all facing irreparable loss.


SG: I don’t know a great amount about the treaty, of what they had. But I know that there was a treaty. I don’t know the specifics. I was asked it before in a job interview, too. Heh. It’s like, ‘I know of it.’ ‘Well, what do you know about it?’ That’s a tough one to answer.

TS: Sam fishes by the treaty, but he hasn’t studied the ins and outs of it. He’s a busy guy. He basically runs his uncle Randy’s fishing crew. And crew members often give him their money to handle because he’s the most responsible. He’s raising his daughter and takes care of a half dozen nieces and nephews who live with him off and on. And having treaty rights doesn’t mean you have to be a treaty scholar. It’s a U.S. treaty. It applies to me and you as much as it applies to Sam and Aiyana. If you don’t know much about the treaty of 1855, either, I don’t blame you. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and learned almost nothing about it. Randy has studied the treaty. I visited him with my reporting partner, Katie Campbell, and we asked him to explain it.

Katie Campbell: ...like just the basics as if I’ve never heard before.

TS: He rubbed his face, looked a little exhausted, and we realized we weren’t the first clueless white people he’d had to educate.

RS: First of all, the treaty of 1855 was a forced treaty.

TS: Forced Treaty was news to me. I grew up with a sanitized version of this history — that what happened to Randy and Sam’s ancestors here on the West Coast was different from what had happened to tribes in the East and the Midwest. Further east, the U.S. government forced tribes off their land and took their natural resources, often at gunpoint. The history I learned was that here in the Pacific Northwest, federal leaders signed peaceful treaties with tribes: white settlers got the land, but granted the tribes certain rights in exchange.

1947 educational film narrator: Indians find good salmon fishing in the rapids. They have a special treaty with the government that lets them fish here at Celilo Falls the whole year round.

TS: Here’s why that version of the story is wrong: White settlers didn’t “let” tribes fish anywhere. Tribes always fished. It was a right they believe was given to them by their creator. The treaty didn’t give them special rights, it just preserved what they already had.


TS: By 1855, when Columbia River tribes gathered in Walla Walla, they’d heard what government agents had done in other parts of the country: They knew about forced removal and destroyed economies, atrocities that included the Trail of Tears.

RS: There was different legal advisers through time who were trying to determine whether the Indians were real human beings, whether they had a legal claim to this, whether we actually had souls.

TS: With more and more white people moving into their homelands, Northwest tribes would have had a good idea about what the alternative to signing a treaty might look like. The official record quotes Isaac Stevens, the governor of the territory at the time, promising tribes would keep their fish “as long as the sun shines, as long as the mountains stand, and as long as the rivers run.” But witness accounts from the council, including a government interpreter, also put some very different words in Stevens’s mouth.

RS: The governor of the territory at the time told the leadership of the 14 bands of the Yakama Nation that if they didn’t sign the treaty, they’d walk knee deep in blood, and that was the blood of their own people.


TS: If you’re anywhere in Central Washington, you’re probably on some of the 11 million acres of land the Yakama chiefs signed over to the U.S. government. The Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes likewise ceded millions of acres at the Walla Walla Council. A few weeks later, the Warm Springs tribes in central Oregon signed a similar treaty ceding 10 million acres. But before you start thinking tribes had no agency in these decisions, you should know that not all Yakama tribal members see it as something white people forced on them.

Emily Washines: I think some Yakamas feel that way, yeah. And some Yakamas feel that it was a policy decision on the behalf of our leaders.

TS: Emily Washines is a scholar and historian. She’s also a member of the Yakama Nation, descended from a treaty signer. Remember, Randy’s great great great grandfather was also a treaty signer.

EW: Like, did they also say that and was there also a feeling of threats or what could happen along with, is it possible to make an agreement to try to maintain and keep peace and so that we can see generations after generations of Yakamas continue? What’s been passed down to me, from our ancestor that was a treaty signer, is that the reason we’re signing this treaty is to protect the resources for those not yet born.

TS: The treaties guaranteed Native fishing, hunting and gathering rights in what are called “usual and accustomed places” both on and off reservations. That phrase — usual and accustomed places — is important. It’s what enshrines Randy, Sam and Aiyana’s right to fish at Stanley Rock all these years later.

EW: Basically, our survival depends on being able to access our traditional foods. That’s what we’re raised with. That’s what we know. The way that I explain this to people that aren’t familiar with treaty rights is: Do you only ever go to one grocery store? Do you only ever go to one restaurant? And why not? And if somebody were to come along and say, well, we wanna keep you in a very specific area, would you not say, Hey, can I still go get my food from this place or that place?

TS: Let’s take a break. And when we come back, we’ll try to spot all the times the U.S. government violated this treaty.


TS: Yakama historian Emily Washines says it wasn’t long after the ink dried on the treaty that tribes encountered problems trying to actually use it, and exercise their rights to access land outside the reservation.

EW: The federal government lost the map from the treaty signing. And so you had decades of Yakamas that kept telling each generation, we have this other section of land the federal government agreed to, but they’re not upholding their end.

TS: Even though tribes knew what resources they could access off the reservation, the U.S. government didn’t.

EW: I mean, governor Stevens didn’t travel the whole tracts of the land in the agreements that he was signing and agreeing to.

TS: But right around the time of the treaty, word was spreading amongst white settlers. They were figuring out what they could find on reservations.

EW: There was gold that was found in northern Washington in the Colville area.

TS: Within weeks of signing the treaty, regional governor Isaac Stevens was allowing white people in search of gold to settle on the Yakama reservation. To trespass, in other words. So the United States is violating this treaty left and right. And we haven’t even made it out of 1855 yet. We’re going to see this happen again and again: When the U.S. wants something the treaty promised tribes, it violates that treaty. In this case, things escalated quickly.

EW: And we had miners traveling through the Yakama area and they ended up raping and killing a mother, her daughter, and a child in a cradle board. And so the widow of that mother and family, along with his friends, found those miners and wanted to prevent them from hurting anybody else. So he killed them. The federal government’s response to that was to ask us to turn over the widow for him to be prosecuted or tried or killed. And our response was “no” as Yakama tribal members.

TS: After the widower killed those miners in revenge, a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent rode into the territory to investigate. There are different versions of how it happened, but that agent ended up dying at the hands of some Yakamas. After that, both sides were prepared for war.

EW: [That] basically is our first report of what’s now known as missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Our first reported case was in 1855 after the treaty was signed and the government responded with a three year war.

TS: The U.S. spent the second half of the 1800s in various wars with tribes all across the Northwest, from Puget Sound into Idaho. Some of that was the spread of the Yakama War. Some of the fighting broke out separately over different treaties, and some of the violence happened because tribal leaders refused to sign new treaties. They weren’t going to give up even more of their land. U.S. troops pursued them across thousands of miles of the American west.

EW: They were literally hunting other tribal members that had signed the treaties and chiefs to try to get them to agree to other terms. Gold drew people west, timber and salmon kept them there. As the gold rush slowed, settlers realized the rivers held riches too. Salmon canneries could sell salmon from coast to coast, and created an insatiable market. They got permits from the state to set up mass-scale fishing operations that blocked tribes from their usual fishing sites. We’re right around the year 1900 now, and note the U.S. is violating these treaties again. This time, the Yakama tribe sued, and won.

EW: What came through in that case is the continued access and ability to get fish. Nobody can block our path to that.

TS: This isn’t the last time tribes would take their fish war battles to the courts. We’ll come back to that in a later episode. Through the early 1900s, there were canneries all over the West Coast. Commercial fishermen were capturing more and more fish every year, and the returns of salmon to the Columbia River plummeted. Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, Washington in 1889. After that, the states became the primary offenders when it came to violating treaties. State governments didn’t rein in the commercial operations. Instead, they adopted laws designed to cut Native people out of the salmon harvest — in the name of conservation. If you’re still keeping track, that’s another treaty violation. And don’t miss the sad irony in this one: Native people had been managing abundant salmon runs for thousands of years. White people depleted them in a matter of decades. Then, in the early 20th century, Congress and federal officials saw an opportunity to use the river for more than just fish. And those plans? They’d make the earlier violations of fishing rights look small.

Department of the Interior film narrator: The Columbia has been a wild and uncontrolled giant. Boiling over rapids and cataracts, 30 million horses plunged relentlessly to the sea. From the beginning of time, this power roared unharnessed to the Pacific.

TS: To the federal government, a free-flowing river was a waste. Building massive dams, though, could make the river more useful for navigation, irrigation and generating hydroelectricity.

Department of the Interior film narrator: To build a colonial empire.

TS: So the government built a series of dams on the Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake River. There’s 18 of them today. The first federal dam was completed in 1933, about an hour east of Portland.

Department of the Interior film narrator: Bonneville Dam, a symbol of power and passage, opens up a region that has more than 10% of the nation’s area but only 3% of its people.

TS: Bonneville Dam created a lake that flooded the Cascades Rapids, once an important fishing area for tribes. Before it was even completed, construction was already underway upriver on another even larger dam that would flood an even more important fishing site.

Woodie Guthrie: I’ve been from here to yonder, I’ve been from Sun to Sun, Coulee Dam’s the biggest thing that man has ever done.

TS: Grand Coulee Dam. The government even hired Woody Guthrie to write propaganda songs about it.

Woodie Guthrie: Uncle Sam he took the challenge in the year of ‘33, for the farmers and the workers and for all humanity...

TS: That line, for all humanity? That’s a lie. The government knew Grand Coulee Dam would cause untold harm to Native people. It had warnings from tribes and analysis from its own biologists. The dam destroyed Kettle Falls, the most important fishing site for upper Columbia River tribes. The dam was so big that it blocked salmon from getting upstream altogether, cutting off many tribes entirely from the salmon that had been central to their way of life. And that killed off several runs of salmon, including the ones known as “june hogs” — iconic giant salmon the size of Labradors. It also killed the vast majority of Columbia Basin sockeye that were headed to spawning areas up in Canada. As a white kid in the Pacific Northwest, I did learn about the dams: I learned that the dams were necessary for progress, and that the impact on Native people and salmon was just … an unfortunate side effect. But when I spent time with tribal people, a lot of them viewed it differently. To them, the dams were a hostile act. The impact of dams on their lives wasn’t incidental. It was targeted.

RS: Some of these agencies, federal agencies that were involved, they promoted the dams by saying, look, if we build these dams we can get rid of the Indian populations that currently live along the Columbia above the Bonneville Dam.

TS: Randy’s right. We ended up finding government documents — meeting records from a council debating dam plans in 1947 — that essentially said just that. In these records, state and federal officials spoke blatantly about “the Indian problem.” The head of the Port of Vancouver said sure, it’d be nice if we could find a way to accommodate the Indians, but “certainly we don’t want it to stand in the way of the development of our own way of life.” At one point the head of Washington’s fish and wildlife agency asked to make a statement. He explained that it would be better if the government didn’t have to worry about the Indians upriver. They wanted Native people off the river, and they flat out said it. Then someone in public relations for the federal Department of Fisheries stated what dams were doing to tribes.

He said, “Now these dams are going along and they are going to destroy their very life. The essence of life for these various tribes.” Reading this, I was struck by how well a public official seemed to understand the harm the government was inflicting. It made sense when I found out he was actually Native, a member of the Tulalip tribe on Washington’s coast. But, then he kept talking. And he explained how those dams fit the government’s larger plan and that plan was quote, “We hope there will be no Indians.”

Government officials wanted tribes to just give up their river ways. They wanted them to integrate into white society or disappear altogether. The rep from the Fisheries Department told fellow officials that Native people had honored their end of the treaty. But since the government was moving ahead with its dams regardless of treaty promises, it owed tribes something.

He offered three words of advice: “pay them off.”


TS: By 1950, the last great fishery and most sacred site for Native tribes on the Columbia was Celilo Falls. Tribes called it Wy’Am. It means “echo of falling water.” People who remember its roar say you could hear it from miles away. Here’s some historical footage of the sound.

(sound of Celilo Falls)

TS: Soon after those meetings we heard about, Congress authorized construction of The Dalles Dam at Celilo Falls. Tribal members like Randy’s father and grandfather made their living there, and made their homes along the river.

RS: That’s who they were, they were fishermen.

TS: The government forced them to move to reservations to prepare for construction, when Randy was just a baby. And then, on March 10, 1957…

(sound of Celilo Falls gets louder, then suddenly goes silent.)

TS: The dam created a reservoir that flooded the area and silenced Celilo. The loss was immense. It’s hard to put into words, but Yakama historian Emily Washines gave it a try.

EW: There’s a loss of fishing and there’s a loss of homes because they were flooded out. So, the number of different villages and the cultural resources and our connection to those historic sites went away or went underwater.

TS: You might be thinking that sounds like a direct violation of the treaties. You’d be right.

EW: Yeah, I mean, I think how people view development, they have different ways of writing things on paper so that they can, you know, sign what’s needed to be signed and, and do their economic analysis the way that it benefits development. I think that at the very basic level, that’s what we see happening again and again with different development along the river.

TS: The federal government justified the dam, built it and offered meager compensation payments to the tribal members who were so deeply affected by it. But that compensation wasn’t even close to enough for families like Randy Settler’s. These families depended on salmon fishing for their livelihood.

RS: I think it amounted to like $3,200 per individual.

TS: $3,200 in exchange for a way of life.


Aiyana George: Can I go play on the trampoline?

Sam George: Yeah.

TS: It’s another slow day of fishing at Stanley Rock. Sam and Aiyana are sitting on the wooden steps of their camper trailer. Sam’s brushing her hair with his hands.

AG: This is kind of like a home to me and I like it here a lot too because this is where kind of like I knew since I was like a baby baby, like since I was in diapers. My dad said when I was a baby, he would put me in the water and then when he would take me out, I would cry. Then when he put me back in, I stopped crying. He called me a river baby.

TS: When she’s not gutting fish or cleaning gear with her dad, Aiyana is jumping on the trampoline, riding her bike around the camp or painting on rocks she found at the river bank. On her birthday, Sam fills the camp with rented bouncy castles.

SG: All her aunties come, all her cousins. I think her last party here. I think we had like 60, 65 people. And that was just close family. She wants it down here. I ask her wherever you want it. And she’s like, ‘I want it at the river.’

TS: This place, Stanley Rock, is what’s often referred to as an in-lieu treaty fishing site. As in, it’s in-lieu of destroyed sites like Celilo. It’s called Stanley Rock because of the towering rock formation beside the camp, which was named after a white homesteader who ran a ferryboat service in the area about 150 years ago. Before Sam and Aiyana could make this place home, generations of tribal people endured hardships and squalor just to keep their ties to the river alive. Like Randy’s family, after they were forced out.

RS: My family, they moved back to the reservation. They tried farming for one reason or another that didn’t work.

TS: They struggled as farmers to feed their four children and themselves. Randy’s dad, Alvin Settler, and Randy’s uncle knew The Dalles Dam would mean the destruction of their beloved Celilo Falls. They also needed money. So they went to work building the dam.

RS: They did it for survival purposes, even though they knew it was, you know, not gonna be beneficial to their other existence, but they regarded it as work.

TS: Randy was pretty young when his father and uncles went to labor in the excavation and concrete pouring of dam construction. He says he doesn’t remember a whole lot about it.

RS: You know, the things that I remember are the funny stories that they told. They were tribal people. They didn’t have a lot or interaction with any society outside of a tribal society. And the tribal people love the lamprey eel. They love to eat it. One day, my father and them were sitting there and they were taking a break and the non-tribal people were looking at their lunches while they were all sitting there eating. And, my uncle Matthew, these people were watching him and on the end of the eel is a tail and it’s shaped like a snake and it’s all black. And he stuck a portion of it that wasn’t the tail in his mouth. And he started chewing it. And these guys started looking at him and he said, ‘that’s the last time this snake’s ever gonna bite me again.’

TS: When construction work stopped, Alvin returned to the reservation, where the family continued to try and make it as farmers. They were struggling, starving at times, in the new life they’d been forced into. So, after a few years, they moved back to the river. They made their home in a one-room shed in the shadow of The Dalles Dam. And they started to fight back.

RS: The police would come in and handcuff my dad or my mom, and, and drag them into a car and then arrest them.

TS: That’s next time, on “Salmon Wars.”

View all episodes of the “Salmon Wars” podcast here.