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Know the West

On sovereignty and subjugation


In the 1970s, the Pacific Northwest was at war over fishing. Tribal fishermen insisted on their right to catch more salmon, inspiring a lawsuit against the state of Washington that 14 tribes eventually joined. In 1974, a white U.S. district court judge decided in their favor, granting them rights to half the salmon catch. George Boldt’s courageous decision, which angered many white Washingtonians, remains a landmark in the push for tribal sovereignty. It was also a validation of Native American civil disobedience, led by a Nisqually man of similarly strong character, Billy Frank Jr.

Too few people pass such tests of character. America is failing one right now. For despite our patriotic songs on the Fourth of July, this is not the land of the free, nor the home of the brave. It is a land divided by those who benefit from a legacy of privilege and those who suffer from a legacy of subjugation.

As I write this, the nation is in shock over yet more killings of black men by police and the subsequent murder of five policemen in Dallas. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement are marching through American cities, including many in the West, arguing in essence that unchecked power infringes on our fundamental sovereignty — a human being’s sovereignty over his or her own body, over his or her own safety and security.

Understood this way, sovereignty is lacking for many in America. It is lacking in other ways, as well. For tribes, the issue has been addressed haltingly at best over the past 150 years. In Alaska, the struggle is ongoing. As correspondent Krista Langlois reports in this issue’s cover story, a year-old tribal commission is working with the federal government to give Alaska Natives more say in the annual harvest of salmon, on which their people and culture depend. This hopeful development stems solely from the tireless efforts of a new generation of tribal leaders, who have had to battle an entrenched state government every step of the way.

HCN Managing Editor Brian Clavert

For the tribes, and indeed for communities throughout the West, sovereignty and survival are inextricably linked. The horrendous events of recent weeks should make us reconsider the history of our nation and region, acknowledging how they were forged through violence and subjugation. This legacy yet ripples through our society, in black communities who live in fear of police power, and through tribes who lack control of their own resources and heritage.

We need people like Billy Frank Jr. and George Boldt, people of character and conscience, now more than ever. It can start here, with each of us, with the simple, courageous act of seeing things as they are. Black lives matter. Native lives matter. What we say, what we do, what we don’t say, what we don’t do — these, too, matter.