Fish On: Battle for Rights

ABOVE: (from left) Mike McCovey, Zip Matilton, Gordon McCovey, Rodney Trimble, Lyle Pole; sitting are: Marion ‘Inker McCovey, Artie Jones, Pliny McCovey, Eddie McCovey circa 1978 at the Hoopa Fish Camp. RIGHT: U.S. federal agents load into their boats along the Klamath River, prior to arresting local tribal members for fishing. During 1978, the U.S. Congress was trying to pass a bill to abolish all treaties with Tribes, and all Tribal hunting and fishing rights. / Photos courtesy of the Hoopa Survival Camp.

By MANUEL “Warrior” SANCHEZ, TRT Files

Editors note: Over the past few weeks, the rocks arranged each year to read “Fish On” on the river bar below Blue Slide in Hoopa have been rearranged to spell obscenities. The first occurrence the rocks were rearranged by an unknown party to read “F&%$ On,” the second “F&^% Off,” and the third “F&%$ Off” again. Each time the Carpenter family and friends have fixed the vandalism by placing the rocks to spell “Fish On” again. After speaking with families who fought for tribal fishing rights in the 1970s, the TRT found it appropriate to republish an article written in 2009 about the significance of “Fish On.” We hope republishing the article, originally written by Manuel “Warrior” Sanchez, will remind those in our community who may have forgotten, or never learned, the solidarity and importance of “Fish On” to the Hupa way of life.

Over 30 years ago along the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, a battle ensued over tribal rights to hunt and fish.

Dubbed the Fish-On Wars, Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk Tribal members were up against the federal government, fighting over their aboriginal right to fish and hunt on their own land.

The 70s were a turbulent time for Native Americans, with the American Indian Movement (AIM) making a name for themselves with their resistance to the government and the occupation of the Alcatraz. In 1978, several bills were introduced to congress to abolish all Tribal treaties, and all hunting and fishing rights.

Several local people felt this was the government trying to assimilate the tribes and erase their past. Hoopa Tribal member and Fish-On warrior, Marion “Inker’ McCovey, said the government came in to divide and conquer.

“The government tried to take our hunting and fishing rights. We were willing to die for those rights,” McCovey said.

McCovey said he had to intervene, for his future children and grand-children. He said if the tribes lost their fishing rights, they would have lost their cultural rights and the government might have taken the reservation.

During this time, many people lost their lives, either at the hands of the government, or other natives trying to keep the status quo. Hoopa Tribal Vice-Chairman, and local historian, Byron Nelson, said there were a lot of people who didn’t know that much about natives at that time.

Nelson said the Hoopa Tribe felt threatened by the government before the tensions of the river took hold. He said in 1978, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) held a general meeting with the Hoopa Tribe announcing the BIA would take 70 percent of the Tribe’s timber revenue and hold it in escrow.

Nelson said during the time, the Hoopa Tribal Council didn’t take a consensus stance on the fishing and hunting rights, but individuals within the Council came out in support of the people.

Then Hoopa Tribal Chairman, Pete Masten, and a few Council members went to Captain John Rancheria (Me:dil:din Village) and went out in boats and put gill-nets in the water. A group of U.S. Marshalls and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were supposed to come up the river and arrest people for fishing, but they never showed.

Hoopa resident, Glenn Sanchez, Sr. said this stance by the council, made the people fight harder. He said it showed the people their leaders were behind them. But not everyone was impressed.

Sanchez said the valley was split, as many people stayed neutral. Some were supporting the government and their mission to abolish all native rights, and some would give their lives to keep what they believe was giving to them by the Creator.

“This was an attack on tribal sovereignty,” Sanchez said.

The biggest and bloodiest part of the fight happened on the Klamath River. Federal agents were stopping people from gill-net fishing in the mouth of the Klamath River. There were people being beaten with billy-clubs, their boats were being swamped by federal boats, and some lost their lives.

The natives were called ‘militants’ by the government, and since AIM was making headlines, the government wanted to quash all Indian up-risings. Sanchez said it was like the early Indian wars, with the government coming in and trying to stop the Indians from being Indian.

McCovey said he didn’t start being militant until the agents arrived in full-riot gear ready for a fight. He said they came armed with machine guns and were arresting people just for fishing.

McCovey said they even had tribal members coming to Me:dil:din Village threatening them and telling them they were wrong to stand up against the government.

“They said we were glory seekers,” McCovey said. “If we didn’t do what we did, we could of lost everything.”

The tribes in the area also received support of a lot of other California Tribes. A large number of non-local natives arrived in Hoopa to show their support for the cause, as well. Sanchez said when he arrived in 1978 with a small group from U.C. Davis, they met at Ah Pah village near Klamath. Where there were over 200 natives on site and all willing to show their support.

Some supporters from AIM arrived in Hoopa and stayed at various locations in the valley. McCovey said they helped mobilize them and get ready for the type of tactics the federal agents would use on them.

It was during this time the violence started to escalate, with the locals getting into fire fights with agents and small goon squads made up of local tribal members. McCovey said there was some skirmishes between the two sides, but to his knowledge no one died.

Nelson said tribes held a sense of entitlement to their land, which was a strong factor in their determination. He said most tribes have a creation story that tells how important the land is to the people.

Nelson said once people finally understood their roots, it become an awakening. He said even after his book Our Home Forever, A Hupa Tribal History came out, a lot of locals never really understood the importance of the land. He said there is a generation gap that needs to be filled with the correct information on what really happened during that time.

Nelson said there was a lot that has come about from that era. He said without it, the Tribe probably wouldn’t have their Tribal Court, social services or their tribal police.

“The fight was a catalyst for native rights,” Sanchez said.

Nelson said their needs to be more information on this time and what it meant to the future of native rights. The sacrifice of a few, has led to the benefits of many. Without people willing to give up their lives for what they believed in, the tribes today wouldn’t have a leg to stand on regarding rights to the river.

All the tribes can say now is – FISH-ON .

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