Samish seek fishing rights, calling treaty 'soul of the tribe'

Friday, December 6, 2002



The Samish Tribe came to federal court yesterday seeking to regain treaty fishing rights stripped away 24 years ago by a judge with Alzheimer's disease.


But arrayed against the Samish -- indigenous people from the San Juan Islands and western Skagit County -- was the combined might of 10 other Coast Salish tribes and the United States. The tribes and the government argued that upsetting U.S. District Judge George Boldt's decision, and the complex web of agreements that flowed from it governing how the Puget Sound salmon harvest is divided would run roughshod over such important legal principles as finality of judgments.


Samish attorney Craig Dorsay told U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein yesterday that "the soul of the tribe as an Indian people is tied inextricably to its treaty status" because it confirms "the tribe's inherent sovereignty" and "historical origins in antiquity."


The Samish want to vacate Boldt's judgment under a rarely used rule that allows cases to be reopened to achieve justice under extraordinary circumstances. The tribe has explicitly chosen not to raise the issue of the now-deceased Boldt's mental status. His death certificate lists Alzheimer's disease as one of the causes of death.


Rothstein rejected such a challenge a few years ago by three other tribes who, like the Samish, were essentially ruled extinct by Boldt.


The Samish are relying on the fact that the legal tests to gain U.S. recognition as a tribe are virtually identical to the tests required to have treaty status. Since the Samish successfully regained federal recognition in 1996, Dorsay asserted, it should be given an opportunity to prove its treaty status as well.


Dorsay argued that if the government had dealt appropriately with the tribe in its quest for federal recognition, then the question of treaty status might well have been resolved in the favor of the Samish long ago.


U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly ruled in the 1990s that the Samish should get a fair hearing from the United States and called the tribe's attempts to be recognized "a protracted and tortured history . . . made more difficult by excessive delays and governmental misconduct."


But attorneys representing the United States and the other tribes challenged the Samish contention that its "tortured" quest for recognition constitutes the kind of exceptional circumstance justifying vacating Boldt's ruling.


"Samish didn't claim that the earlier proceedings were unfair," said Lummi Nation attorney Dan Raas.


Attorney Mason Morisset for the Tulalip Tribes decried the notion of meddling with the complex rules, court orders and inter-tribal agreements governing how the fish harvest is divided.


Morisset and Raas argued that Rothstein must maintain the integrity of the legal process by ensuring the finality of decisions. "The idea that this group (the Samish) will come in and not disrupt anything will be poppycock," said Morisset.


After the hearing, Samish Tribal Chairman Ken Hansen, angry about opposition from his Coast Salish cousins, called the actions of the other tribes "a politics of greed" motivated by their desire to "eliminate Samish from the most lucrative fishing grounds in the state."

P-I reporter Paul Shukovsky can be reached at 206-448-8072 or

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