George Charley’s Fight for the Chinook Fishery

Patrick J. McGowan, a European American, founded the first commercial salmon packing plant on his property in 1857, just downriver from “Chinookville.”

McGowan’s salmon packing operation was ideal; the Chinook had long used the site to fish because of its prime location along the river and proximity to returning salmon. The success of McGowan’s operation attracted others to construct more advanced salmon canneries along the north shore of the Columbia.Technological adaptations like horse seines, fish traps, and fish wheels increasingly dotted the landscape. These devices brought in enormous amounts of fish and curtailed Chinook access to their traditional fishing sites.

George A. Charley was the son of the famous Chinook Chief “Lighthouse”Charley Ma-Tote. He was also the chief of the Chinook at Willapa Bay, and had spent his entire life along the mouth of the Columbia and Willapa Bay. His mother was Quinault and his children obtained allotments as Chinook on the Quinault reservation. But Charley remained a Chinook on Chinook land, and continued to fish as a Chinook.

George A. Charley used many forms of fishing technology; he organized horse seines, used gill nets and fixed nets, as well as other traditional gear. But as hostile whites increasingly invaded the lower Columbia, Indian fishermen like Charley were pushed to the fringes.

Newer forms of fishing technology like set nets, fish traps, and horse seines pulled in enormous amounts of fish and monopolized sites like Peacock Spit and Sand Island in Baker Bay. Upset about his marginalized fishing grounds, Charley took 65 other Indians in Chinook canoes and paddled out to Sand Island on the morning of July 18, 1929.

Charley and his Chinook fishermen confronted the white horse seining fishermen, attracting Ilwaco Deputy Sheriff Myers who confiscated Charley’s gear. The Sheriff also fined and cited the Indians for violating the contract of Henry Barbey who had an exclusive lease to fish on Sand Island from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Charley got the attention of a federal district lawyer and filed a case in the district court in Tacoma. The case United States v.McGowan examined the fishing rights of Chinook Indians who owned land on the Quinault reservation. The U.S. attorney who represented Charley and his fellow Chinook Indians argued that Sand Island and Peacock Spit were “usual and accustomed ground”for fishing under the protection of the Treaty of Olympia. However, the court ruled against Charley because fishing on the Columbia was only“ occasional” and not “usual” in terms of the Olympia treaty.

The court found that “the estuary of the Columbia River, while beyond the question usually and customarily resorted to as a fishing ground of the Chinook tribe of

Indians, was not usually and customarily or frequently resorted to by the Quinaielt and Quillehute.”

Charley’s case was dismissed because his lawyer tried to use the Treaty of Olympia as a means for protecting his rights to fish as a Chinook. The court failed to understand that the Chinook were extended all the rights and privileges of that treaty, but were not confined to Quinault land. The case should have extended Chinook fishing rights to the Olympia treaty. Not vice versa, because ninety percent of the Indians in this case were Chinook, not Quinault. Lastly, the court noted that Chinook usual and customary fishing sites were along the river, because Charley attempted to fish away from the river bank and in a “non traditional way” he was still afforded no protection as a Chinook Indian fishermen.

Personal Stories

Joe Brignone and Sam Robinson both have ties to the fishing industry. Their oral histories contain rich descriptions of fishing, and it is especially interesting that Sam makes special reference to utilizing seal as well. Both narrators make more subtle connections to Chinook struggles over fishing rights. But more importantly, Joe and Sam’s oral histories highlight the persistence of Chinook fisher men despite the legal struggles of Chinook fishermen like Charley. Sam and Joe both mention fishing on the Columbia River with Blue Cards. The Blue Card was a B.I.A. administrative response to United States v.McGowan. In other words, while the court decided that legallyChinooks could only fish as Quinaults, to the B.I.A., it was clear that historically Chinook fishing grounds were along the Columbia River and Willapa Bay. In the 1950s the B.I.A. issued Blue Card fishing licenses to Chinook tribe members and the Washington Department of Fisheries recognized the fishing rights of Chinook fishermen with Blue Cards.

Sam Robinson describes his uncle fishing with a Blue Card:

But Clyde, you know, he had seining rights on the Columbia River. He had some old rights and Clyde was kind of instrumental when the government came by; they wanted to get the blue cards from my dad and my uncle and he said,‘No, give those to me and I’ll keep them. We’re not going to give them up.’ “Because the government came in and said,‘ Well, if you give us the blue cards, we’ll give you the new version,’equivalent of, you know.And Clyde didn’t trust them. So, he kept them and then later gave them back.“I can remember being fishing when I was a kid, out here, you know we’d go out and do some trout fishing or something and the gamey would come by and he’d ask for our license. Of course when we were kids we didn’t need licenses, but my dad would whip out his blue card and they’d look at him and he’d say,‘Well, hope you catch a lot of fish. Have a nice day, ’you know, and left him alone. So he was still fishing on a blue card, you know, as a sports fisherman. So it was important; Clyde knew. He knew you couldn’t trust the government, so he made sure they didn’t give those up.

Sam Robinson talks about Sammy Pickernell hunting seal:

But then in his spare moments he might be out there hunting seal, you know, because there was a bounty on seals at the time. He’d get five bucks a nose if he shot them in the Willapa. And if he shot them in the Columbia he’d get ten bucks a nose. And all you had to do, you’d cut the nose and the whiskers off, to take it in to get your bounty. [chuckles] And he would actually take those Willapa ones over to the Columbia and get the ten bucks you know. It was worth it, you know, gas was cheap back then.“But I can remember going out with him, and you’d go out there and you’d say, ‘Wow, is that an island or sand spit?’ “He goes,‘No, those are seals.’It would be just so thick out there. So they had to control them some way, and they were allowing them to control them through this bounty; which they should bring back , you know. But unfortunately they haven’t yet. Also, later on in life, you know probably about mmm, six/seven years ago we took Sammy by canoe over to Long Island; you know, so he could tell us what it was like living on Long Island. And he was telling us about in, I believe it was 1935, that he remembers his great—he lived with his Chitcha, his grandma, his Chitcha getting a letter from the government saying they got one year to move off.‘ We’re turning it into a refuge.’ You know, and he lived in one of the last eleven or twelve villages on that island. He lived on that. He would tell us stories about when he used to, he used to seal hunt back there as a kid. So it was in his blood, and he, if you wounded it then you had to dive in and chase it, chase it down.

Sam Robinson’s story about eating seal oil:

 … Well one of our fishermen was out and unfortunately, you know, the seals are always munching on their nets. One day he got fed up with that and popped a seal, and his daughter was asking if anybody wanted a seal, and we knew somebody that wanted it, took it, you know, and rendered it out and kept the seal oil to use for, not only for cooking but also to use for when he was making things; you know, the seal oil bowls and stuff, you know. So it worked good.“And it’s kind of like, I mean nothing’s going to go bad. Every bit’s going to be utilized, so I kind of wish they’d let us continue those old traditions, because you know, it’s not like we’re wasteful. We’re not going out there and just popping these seals for trophies or anything. I mean there’s use for the whole item. And when he was cutting that seal open, he thought it was kind of—the first thing, the blood and the meat is just like black. It’s kind of, it’s real rich but it’s real black and he says the smell is just like the ocean. It smells just like the sea air. But yeah, so I’ve had a little seal oil.” “…they’d put the oil in a seal bladder and keep it that way. And they would hide it because Chitcha wanted to put it on everything. She’d put it on berries, whatever, because you were eating season and you’d plug up if you didn’t. So oil was in your diet. So they made sure that they got oil. I think that was probably a reason that my dad said when he was in school, they’d line up all the Indian kids and they’d make them take cod liver oil; just the Indian kids, because they must have felt that they needed oil or something back in the day. But he said all the Indian kids got oil, cod liver oil. None of the other kids did. They just gave it to the Indian kids.

Sam Robinson on the politics of fishing:

You know back in the days, you know I remember when we had petitions down in the stores, you know, like in Ilwaco and places, you know, you’d hear stories of the crabber, some crabber would walk in the store. He’d see the petition, he’d tear it up and throw it on the floor; you know, there was that, because they thought we were going to come in and take over their fisheries. And that was a lot of work we had to do with Brian [Baird] to settle that out, because Brian had a huge support from the crabbers; you know, and that was his number one issue was, ‘What are you going to do about fisheries?’ And we settled that out pretty smoothly and all of a sudden we had support from the crabbers, you know.

Joe Brignone talks about fishing with a Quinault/Chinook Blue Card:

We all had blue cards, you know, and I lost my billfold —I bet you I spent weeks combing the brush down there at Goose Point, trying to find that billfold because it had my blue card in it. I’ve still got the paperwork that I got, signed by everybody when I got my blue card, I got that and it’s pretty folding-worn and everything, but yeah, once you got it they didn’t issue them again see.

KB: Did you ever spend time at the Quinalt Reservation or the Shoalwater?

JB: Only to go down to visit relatives and stuff, you know. I always liked it because there was only one Brignone family and I can’t remember, I don’t think I ever knew his first name but they called him Tom-tom. Well, then he married a Squaxin Indian, which is up by Shelton and that area there and her nickname was Bubbles. So now my relatives on the reservation is Tom-tom and Bubbles. [all laugh] So if I go down, and then later in years when I wanted to go down there and see if anybody was still [all right?], I didn’t know their names so I had to say Tom-tom and Bubbles. Well, because the reservation isn’t that big at the Quinault you know, they’d know exactly who I was talking about and everything. They’re dead now, you know. So, yeah, but the reservation, we didn’t spend much time at the reservation, except we’d go down to the Tahola area and go clam digging and stuff like that, see. But, because we only had that one relative down there.

Sam Robinson on his grandfather’s processing plant:

Yeah, I used to work for your grandfather when I was in high school,” or whatever, a lot of people. Because he employed a lot of people in the summer time, because they packed a lot of berries away. DzA lot of berries and then later on they packed a lot of fish. They had big tunnels in there to where they could bring in the big fish and dip it in the water and instantly, pft! case it in ice, you know, freeze it, you know, and keep it fresh that way. So he processed a lot of fish over there. My dad was talking about sometimes they’d even, it was back in the day when you could bring in those twelve to fifteen foot sturgeon and process them, and cut them up, you know, and so yeah there were—and my grandfather, he had a lot of land over there so he grew a lot of berries as well and had to hire people to take care of the berries. So he had about a hundred and ten acres, and a majority of it was in berries of some sort; you know, so. I’d go over there and pick berries as well, you know, and make some money.