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Know the West

A 700th generation fisherman


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Donald Sampson, 38, an Umatilla Indian, is a fish biologist and executive director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Commisssion, based in Portland, Ore. The commission represents the four tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River fish - the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Yakama.

"People come up to me and say, "Why are you still killing fish when they are endangered?"

"When our people made a treaty, we gave away more than 40 million acres of land, but we reserved the right to fish. The (government) promised that the fish would be in the river. The courts said, "You can catch half of all the fish," but we're not catching that at all.

"We have cut back on our fishing voluntarily, but no one else has stopped killing fish. The big, indiscriminate killers - the dams - operate 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. They say, "Give up a little more," and we say. "We've already given up more."

"If we stop fishing, we lose. The Makah tribe gave us a wake-up call on this, because they stopped killing whales 70 years ago, and now they are having such a tough time getting (the right to hunt whales) back.

"An (eastern Washington) farmer came in and told me how hard his grandfather worked to make a homestead three generations ago, and how things could go belly-up if the Snake River dams are breached. I told him about my grandfather, who worked the same hard to make a living fishing the Columbia, and he was a 700th generation fisherman. My grandfather went off to fight in World War II for this country, and when he came back he found his business underwater, flooded by the federal dams.

"When I put it in these terms, the farmer understood why Indians fight for the fish.

"Our people, our culture, is still suffering because of the loss of the fish. We were never compensated for the loss of the fishery, but we think the farmers should be when the dams are breached.

"We have to be aggressive, because there is no justice unless you create it."