of the Umatilla Board of Trustees member
Umatilla Reservation, near Pendleton,
CLAIM TO FAME
Fighting for tribal fishing rights on the Columbia River, as well
as for the health of the river’s fish.
"I like fish any way — baked,
smoked, fried, dried or boiled."
daughter once asked if she would be able to fish in the open water
of the Columbia River the way she remembered her father doing
— or if she would have to simply stand on the bank, and hope
for more fish next season.
Brigham has made it her
life’s work to see that her daughters, her grandchildren, and
subsequent generations of Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of the
Umatilla can fish in the Columbia every year. She is one of her
community’s strongest advocates for restoring native salmon
and trout fisheries, and for maintaining tribal treaty rights to
fish in the Columbia and its tributaries.
The 1855 treaty
between the Walla Walla, Cayuse and Umatilla tribes — which
make up the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla — created the
tribes’ reservation near Pendleton. It also gave their
roughly 2,500 members exclusive rights to fish in streams on and
bordering the reservation.
Fishing is a tribal tradition,
and the Columbia River was only about 30 miles away from
Brigham’s childhood home on the reservation. But she grew up
more familiar with the mountains than the river, becoming better
acquainted with the Columbia when she married an Umatilla
commercial fisherman in 1965.
Brigham left the
reservation for the small downstream town of Cascade Locks, where
her husband, Robert, and his family had their operation. Like many
Umatilla families, they caught fish for a variety of purposes:
tribal ceremonies, commercial profit, and their own use. Although
Brigham’s parents had taught her that women weren’t
supposed to hunt or fish, it was more accepted by her
husband’s family. Soon, she was setting nets with her
in-laws, and eventually, she had her own all-female crew.
Meanwhile, Brigham gave her grandfather rides to tribal, state and
federal agency meetings in Portland, and she often asked him
questions about the complex web of agencies and rules that govern
fishing in the Columbia.
"He taught me that I had a
responsibility to watch out for future generations, to protect the
treaty," Brigham says.
After joining the Umatilla Fish
and Wildlife Committee in 1976, Brigham realized that her simple
fishing life had become complicated. She was especially frustrated,
she says, by the ongoing over-fishing by non-Indian fishermen. They
caught so many fish that the Confederated Tribes believed that if
Indian fishermen took any, the salmon would no longer be able to
reproduce in healthy numbers. Many years, Brigham winced as she
told her neighbors that the tribes had decided they would have to
stay off the river.
"I could have been upset, but what
does that accomplish?" Brigham says. "There was a realization that
we needed to move on and improve things."
traveled to southeast Alaska, Canada and Washington, where she
helped to coordinate the harvest of salmon throughout the Northwest
— an effort she says helped curb over-fishing. Throughout the
1960s and 1970s, the Umatilla, the Yakima and other tribes also won
court decisions that allotted them rights to 50 percent of all
harvestable fish in the Columbia Basin. More recently, Brigham
helped lead the reintroduction of chinook salmon in the Umatilla
River, which had lost its fishery to irrigation and a dam some 70
In 1995, after being elected to the tribal
Board of Trustees, Brigham moved back to the reservation with her
husband. Following in her grandfather’s footsteps, Brigham
has begun to teach her grandchildren about tribal traditions, and
she has given them Indian names. Her three daughters, meanwhile,
are coming to understand why she spent all those years traveling to
distant meetings. Having worked with five generations of her family
and community, Brigham might be on her way to a truly long-term
management plan for salmon.