Protecting the treaty, saving the fish

  • Kat Brigham

    Marcus Luke Photo Courtesy Confederated Umatilla Journal

Kat Brigham

Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Board of Trustees member

Umatilla Reservation, near Pendleton, Oregon

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."

Kat Brigham’s 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."

So Brigham 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 years earlier.

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.

The author writes from Portland, Oregon.

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