River Land for River People

The Right to Fish

Peace can be elusive, even in the Columbia Gorge, where the natural surroundings would seem to subdue human conflict. In the fall of 1993, as the salmon returned to the Columbia, the River People returned to Lyle Point. Days before, over the objections of Native Americans and the Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, county officials had granted developers final approval for the subdivision. Now the River People pitched tipis, built a sweat lodge, trucked in portable toilets, and settled in for what would be a long, tense occupation.

"I am a quiet person. I do not like to fight," says Margaret Flintknife Saluskin, a Wishcum and a member of the Yakama Nation. It was Saluskin who led the protest. "I could not permit a blue metal gate to separate me from my ancestors, my way of life."

Developers assured tribal members that they would have access to the Columbia, and that their right under the Yakamas' Treaty of 1855 to fish from riverbanks would be respected. But Saluskin and others questioned whether the owners of new luxury houses would tolerate Indians cleaning fish and camping next door. "The salmon is our 'first food,' given to us by the Creator," Saluskin explains. "Our rights to fish cannot depend on the kindness of strangers."

For the better part of two years, the River People, together with the Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, occupied the land. "The action created a real sensation," Bowen Blair recalls. "It raised people's awareness of the land's cultural and scenic value, making it hard for the developers to move ahead. And, I believe, the occupation is the only reason we were able to secure an option on the property."

Preservation of Lyle Point fits well within TPL's Tribal Lands Program, launched last year to help secure lands of spiritual or cultural significance. "This land," Blair says, "is at the epicenter of one of the most important cultural areas in North America: the eastern Columbia Gorge, where Native Americans have lived, traded and fished for more than 10,000 years."

Protecting the Columbia Gorge

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