DALLESPORT — In the welcome shade of towering trees at Columbia Hills State Park, more than 200 people enjoyed food and fellowship on Tuesday, gathering near the Columbia River to celebrate and share important history.
A River Walk commemorated the 50th anniversary of Sohappy v. Smith in July 1969, a landmark tribal fishing case also known as the Belloni decision. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Belloni, a federal judge in Oregon, found that citizens of the Yakama Nation and the Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes had a legal right to fish in the waters where their ancestors caught fish. The decision also limited state efforts to regulate tribal fishing.
Yakama Nation Cultural Resources and the Yakama Nation Wak’ishwi Program (formerly known as the Diabetes Prevention Program) organized Tuesday’s events. The goal was to recognize a decision that was a foundation for future court rulings solidifying Native American fishing rights.
Sohappy v. Smith is modern history that is especially precious because it’s not often taught in schools, so hearing from those whose family members fought for their treaty rights was a rare opportunity. Relatives of the 14 fishers in the case — men and women often referred to as “river people” — received special certificates presented by Jon Shellenberger, archaeologist and ethnographer for the Yakama Nation.
The 14 anglers were 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.
“A lot of them are gone. I was 10 years old when all this went down. I’d hear (my dad) argue” with others about standing up for their treaty rights, David Sohappy Jr. said after accepting several certificates honoring his relatives. “I’m glad he did. We should be like the osprey, fish any time we want, take care of our families.”
Sohappy thanked those attending for showing their respect to the families.
His father and Richard Sohappy were arrested in 1968 for using gill nets to catch salmon on the Columbia River by Oregon officials in violation of conservation laws. The Sohappys and the others, with the help of University of Washington law professor Ralph Johnson, filed a lawsuit against the Oregon Fish Commission, alleging the state’s regulations violated tribal fishing rights as defined in the Treaty of 1855 that united 14 tribes and bands as the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.
“They were just trying to live,” said Watlamet’s grandson, Troy Watlamet, who works for Yakama Nation Cultural Resources. “I vaguely remember that stuff happening when I was a kid.”
He was in middle school when he started fishing with his grandpa at the family’s site near Lyle. His family has fished all around there and Watlamet heard many stories growing up.
“To me, I don’t see what they were doing wrong. They were just doing what they grew up with,” Watlamet said.
Watlamet and Vince George, who also works for Yakama Nation Cultural Resources, come to the area often for work to ensure there is no vandalism, digging or other damage. Earlier in the day Tuesday, they stood alongside a trail below towering basalt cliffs near the river. They pointed out deep round indentations in flat rocks where the people who lived in in this area for thousands of years ground roots and packed salmon.
Before the picnic, Shellenberger led a walking tour, where he discussed some of the petroglyphs. They are known as as temani peshwa in Ichiskiin, also known as Sahaptin, the language spoken by the Yakama people in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
Of special interest were the Speedis Owl, one of the most prevalent petroglyphs. “There’s one near Beacon Rock; there’s one near The Dalles Dam,” Shellenberger said.
Moving into a portion of the park normally closed to the public, Shellenberger pointed out petroglyphs high above the group, some damaged by vandalism, some faded by time and weather.
The tour culminated in a stop below She Who Watches, a large petroglyph whose eyes fix on the Columbia a short distance away.
“She Who Watches is the legendary being who looks out for her lost children. She’s a warning to our people” to be aware of the dangers of the river, he said. “She’s a national landmark ... a very important petroglyph.”
The ancient history of people who lived in this area for at least 11,000 years is precious and is highlighted on public walks every year. Sohappy v. Smith is important modern history that also needs to be shared, especially with young people, said Emily Washines, a Yakama Nation scholar and historian.
“The younger generation isn’t aware of what it took to get our rights,” she said.