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The loss of the Reef–Net fishery at Point Roberts

The page is edited excerpts from:
Richard E. Clark's, Point Roberts, USA: The History of a Canadian Enclave.
Textype Publishing. Bellingham, Washington, 1980. Chapter 6; pp79-88.

Reef–netting was the most important technique for catching salmon amongst the Straits Salish peoples. The two most important reef–netting locations: a large flat–topped rock near Birch Point, believed to belong to the Birch Bay people; the Cannery Point, Point Roberts was a Semiahmoo location shared with the Saanich, Cowichan and Lummi groups. The Point Roberts (Chiltenum) reef–netting grounds were by far the largest and most productive in the whole area. It was from these grounds that the bulk of the winters food supply came.


The seasonal, communal use of Point Roberts was also important in the social, cultural and linguistic renewal among the Straits Salish people. The seasonal gatherings encouraged trade, the renewal of family links, and social interaction. All this came to an end in 1880 when a Point Roberts resident destroyed the seasonal fishing shacks and drying racks and forced the native fishermen off the reef at Point Roberts.


The Lummi Indians themselves, and on behalf of the British Columbia bands, filed the legal proceedings in an attempt to regain access to the Point and their reef-net locations.


Appeal of Mukilteo Treaty

In 1883 the Lummi Indians filed an appeal against their dislocation from the Point. They held that the Indian Treaty of January 22, 1855, commonly called the Mukilteo Treaty, provided the:

...the right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the territory, and erecting temporary housed for the purpose of curing. In conflict with this was the statement in the treaty that states, In the control of fisheries within the state, the state government is supreme.

The indigenous community and the Alaska Packers' Association claimed different reasons for fishing rights: the indigenous peoples laid claim to the privileges guaranteed by the fifth article of the Treaty of 1855, while the Alaska Packers' Association maintained their fishing right by virtue of a state license.


The Lummi Indians, in the spring of 1895, had filed a lawsuit against the Alaska Packers Association and Kate Waller. Testimony was before the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Washington, Northern Division. Testimonies were heard before Judge C.H. Hanford between June 14 and 17 of 1895. Attorneys for the plaintiffs (indigenous peoples) were W.H. Brinker and James A. Kerr. Attorneys for the defendants were Sam H. Plies, C.W. Dorr, Hiram E. Hadley and another Hadley.


Old Polen's Testimony

In the summer of 1895 Old Polen, a member of the Lummi Tribe, testified:

I am a member of the Lummi Tribe or Nation of Indians, and I reside on the Lummi Reservation in Watcom County, State of Washington. I am about eighty years of age, but am unable to state my exact age.
I remember distinctly when the treaty between the Lummi Indians and the United States of America was entered into by the headmen of our tribe and Governor Stevens. And the time when the Lummi Indian Reservation at the mouth of the Nootsack River was established, I was then a middle aged man. At that time Chawcetsot was the chief of the Lummi Indians.
I remember very well when the United States soldiers were located at old Fort Bellingham on Bellingham Bay, and that the treaty was made prior to that time. I knew David Crockett, the father of Hillaire Crockett and who was also chief of the Lummis. Hillaire Crockett is now and has been for a number of years the chief of the Lummi Indians. I have known Captain Jack since he was a little boy. I fished at Point Roberts' reef from the time I was a boy until I became too old to catch fish; I was there every year. The Lummi Indians have fished at Point Robert every year as long as I can remember. Every year a great many Lummi Indians fished at the Point.
Captain Jack has fished there every year since he was a boy. I knew Jack's father and I know that he fished there every year. I know Jo Norris, Harry Sewalton, Louis Washington, Joseph Bill, George Sknoughton, Tom Squaqui, Indian Mike, Jo Tobe and many others of the Lummi Indians who have fished at Point Roberts every year since they were boys. I knew old Ben, Timothy Yelatameon, Old Washington, Old Nolton and many other Indians now dead, all of the Lummis, and with whom I fished when I was a small boy.
We had shacks built where the cannery now stands in which we lived while fishing, and where we smoked the salmon we caught.
John Waller, the husband of Kate Waller, one of the defendants, tore down all our shacks. I was there when John Waller tore them down. I fished at Point Roberts a great many years before I ever saw a white man there.

Old Polen, speaking in his native tongue, described the Indian fishing techniques. John Elwood acted as interpreter at the hearing.

We fished always on the reef with nets. When I was a young man, and for many years thereafter, we made our nets out of willow bark. We would go up the Nooksack River and cut the young willows and peel off the bark, and make our nets with it.
We would go over to Point Roberts, and at low tide we would go upon the reef, and remove all the boulders and big rocks form the bottom for a space of about sixty feet wide, and fix our anchors. When the tide was ebbing we would take two canoes out to these places and anchor them on the rocks. We let our net down into these channels from which we had removed the stones. On the ebb tide we would catch the sockeye salmon and cure them in our shacks at the Point.
I have seen thirty or forty nets spread there at a time. When we fished we would generally have five Indians in each canoe. The nets were about from six to twenty feet wide and from fifty to sixty feet long, with ropes fastened to the lower edge of the net, held by the Indians in the front end of the canoes. When the run of the salmon struck the nets, the Indians in the canoes would gather the edge of the nets over the side of the canoes. The anchor ropes would then be let out and the canoes pulled sidewise together. After the salmon taken were thrown into one of the canoes, we would drop the nets and pull back to position again.

General Gaines' Testimony

General Gaines, born by the Nooksack River, and also elderly testified:

I was at Mukilteo when Governor Stevens made the treat with our people in 1855. I was there and heard what Mr. Stevens said to the Indians and it was interpreted by John Taylorinto the Indian language. Governor Stevens told the Indians that they could go anywhere on the saltwater where they were accustomed to go to catch salmon, dig clams, or hunt deer or ducks; that the treaty would not confine us to the Reservation when we wanted to hunt or fish and that we could fish where we used to.
Our headmen told Governor Stevens that Chiltenum was their best fishing ground and they wanted to know whether if they signed the paper that they could go to Chiltenum just as they had always done.
The Lummi Indians then understood that they were guaranteed the right to fish at Point Roberts and have fished there ever since and without being molested until two years ago when the Alaska Packers Association put its traps in from of the reef.

Old Polen's and Harry Sewalton's Testimony

Old Polen told how the Alaska Packers Association had constructed three large traps in front of their accustomed fishing ground. Then in 1894, as he attempted to fish at the usual reef, he was assaulted.

H.B. Kirby, who was then in the employ of the defendant Association, came to the shack occupied by me on the beach and ordered me to leave and stayed around until I left. He threatened me with injury if I did not leave.

Harry Sewalton filed a similar story against Kirby. Sewalton claimed the Kirby threatened him with a revolver. He then described how the Alaska Packers Association procured a pile driver and proceeded to drive piling at the fishing area occupied by Sewalton. Sewalton also claimed that the Association destroyed his anchors, ropes and appliances. When Kirby appeared at his shack with the revolver, Sewalton decided to abandon the reef.


John Elwood's Testimony

John Elwood was forty years old in 1895. He was the official interpreter for all the Indians who witnessed at the court. Respected and known by the Indians, Elwood testified:

In 1875 or 1876, I began trading with the Lummi, Saanich and Cowichan Indians, and also the Semiahmoo at Point Roberts and buying from them the sockeye salmon taken each year at Point Roberts. When I began purchasing their salmon, to the best of my recollection, there was but one cannery in British Columbia and not one in the Territory of Washington. I was the first American or white man on the American side of the international boundary who began the packing of salmon.
From 1875 or 1876, every summer I made my residence at Point Roberts, and bought and packed the salmon taken by the Indians on the reef at the Point. I salted and packed such salmon in barrels, and had a vessel and at times sold such salmon to the Fraser River Cannery.
Since 1875 I have known as many as 250 Indians to be engaged in fishing at this Point, and in the light years the numbers were somewhat reduced. Since I have known this Point, large numbers of Indians have annually fished there, but more than on-half of the fishermen have always been Saanich and Cowichan Indians. Between one-third and one-half of such fishermen have been Lummis. I have known all of the Lummi fishermen during all these years, and have bought their fish and kept book accounts with them and paid them a great many thousands of dollars for the fish they caught at Point Roberts.
During all these years I have been very familiar with the Point Roberts reef, and each and every part of it. I was on and over that reef every year scores of times. When I first went to Point Roberts, three or four acres of the mainland at the point where the cannery now stands was literally covered with racks built and maintained by these Indians for drying their salmon for their own use and for trading purposes. There were a great many shacks along this part of the beach, and the condition of these shacks and racks showed that they had been in use for a great many years.
All of the Indians have been for years and generation friendly. They have intermarried and have maintained an alliance against the Northern Indians who frequently made war upon them and carried away the captives taken for slaves. The Northern Indians not only were hostile to these Indians, but to the early white settlers. All these tribes of Indians were friendly to the white and made common cause with them against the northern invaders.
I also know from my frequent conversations with these older Indians that for generation Point Roberts has been a common fishing ground for all these tribes, including the Lummis. Upon Point Robert's reef and on the beach where their shacks and racks were maintained, these Indians and all of them who fished at the Point had their several allotments of land. Their net locations and their rights to these respective locations and allotments of land were scrupulously respected, and here existed an old custom and law among them that was never violated in this regard. I know and the fact is that Captain Jack and the other Lummis had their several allotments of land on the Point and their sever locations on this reef, and occupied them during all the time I have known them. These locations on the reef extended from a point near the mainland out to the point of that reef.
John Waller, the husband of Kate Waller, came to Point Roberts a year or two after I began trading with these Indians at the Point. Waller located on the Point at the place where the cannery now stands, and had been there several years before he attempted to interfere with the Indians. At the point were the cannery is located there is a little sheltered cove and sandy beach, and such point is the only natural or fit harbor in that vicinity at which canoes such as are used by the Indians can be landed. The rest of the shoreline is rocky and exposed.
About 1880, Waller destroyed the racks of the Indians located where the cannery now stands. The Indians then moved up the easterly shoreline to the north six or seven-hundred yards. Afterwards, Waller asserted claim to these lands also, and the Indians complained to me that Waller had torn down their shacks at that place and used the lumber.
The Indians have never fished at the Point with any other kind of appliances than with their hand and lift nets, and they do no understand the use of any other kind of fishing appliances. I have known white men at this Point to catch fish with gill nets and purse seines, but the Indians have always fished at the Point, only on the reef, with lift nets.
The Indians are very poor and could not invest in trap equipment such as that used by the Alaska Packers Association. As for the three huge traps that the Association had placed before the reef, the old net locations of the Indians were rendered useless and none of them can be fished with profit.

Kate Waller's Testimony

Kate Waller, defendant, was a fifty–five year old widow. Her land, she noted, was legally owned under the homestead laws of the United States. She stated:

...that is one of the traditions of the Indians residing in this locality, that Point Roberts has been regarded and considered by said Indians as a fishing station of the Saanich, Semiahmoo, Cowichan and other British Columbian Indians and not as a fishing station or place in any manner claimed by the Lummis.

She claimed that in 1882, when the Lummis first began to make frequent appearances at Point Roberts, the Saanich Indians: protested against the Lummis occupying any part of the reef or fishing grounds. Since that year, she maintained, no more than a dozen Lummis had ever appeared at Point Roberts during any one fishing season.


Judge Hanford's Decision

It must have been a tough case for Judge C.H. Hanford, who did not render a final decision until March 12, 1897.


Judge C.H. Hanford knew that the Indian Treaty of January 22, 1855, commonly called the Mukilteo Treaty, provided that:

...the right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the territory, and of erecting temporary houses for the purpose of curing. But he knew, too, that the treaty stated, "In the control of fisheries within the state, the state government is supreme."

Each group claimed a different reason for fishing rights: The Indians laid claim to the privileges guaranteed by the fifth article of the Treaty of 1855, while the Alaska Packers Association maintained their fishing right by virtue of a state license.


Judge Hanford wrote:

It a disputed point in the case whether or not the Lummi Indians were, at or previous to the time of the treaty, accustomed to resort to the Point Roberts fishing station to catch fish. I consider this an immaterial point, for, as I construe the treaty, the fifth article was not intended to create a reservation of any particular place for catching fish, in favor of any one of the different tribes or bands of Indians with whom the treaty was made. It is a general provision in favor of all the fishing stations within the territory of Washington; and the words used, so far from creating an exclusive right, manifest clearly a purpose to secure equality of rights in favor of the Indians, at all usual places where citizens have the common right of fishing. Although I regard the points as immaterial, I will say that I find a decided preponderance of the evidence in favor of the contention on the part of the complainants, and the evidence satisfies me that for many generations the Lummi Indians have bee accustomed to catch fish by means of net of their own manufacture, at the place referred to.
Later on, Hanford stated:
To interfere with the Alaska Packers' Association in such a way as to render its business unprofitable, and drive it away from Point Roberts would be a serious injury, rather than benefit, to the Indians, for they would then be obliged to sell their fish elsewhere.
After much deliberation, Hanford finally came to the following decision:
These considerations lead me to conclude:
(1) That the rights of the Lummi Indians under the treaty referred to have not been invaded by the defendants in such manner as to call for legal redress.
(2) That it is not competent for this court to interfere by an injunction with the fish traps of the Alaska Packers' Association, which are authorized and licensed by the laws of the state. Let there be a decree dismissing the suit, without costs.

The case was closed. The Straits Salish reef net sites were lost.

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