River chief imprisoned for fishing fights for sacred rights

Aug 15, 2022, 9:24 AM | Updated: 9:37 pm
Wilbur Slockish Jr., a river chief of the Klickitat Band of the Yakama Nation, looks at petroglyphs...

Wilbur Slockish Jr., a river chief of the Klickitat Band of the Yakama Nation, looks at petroglyphs in Columbia Hills Historical State Park on Saturday, June 18, 2022, in Lyle, Wash. In the 1980s, Slockish served 20 months in federal prison on charges of poaching salmon from the Columbia River. He says he went to prison to fight for his people's right to practice their faith. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

(AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

THE DALLES, Oregon (AP) — Wilbur Slockish Jr. has been shot at, had rocks hurled at him. He hid underground for months, and then spent 20 months serving time in federal prisons across the country — all of that for fishing in the Columbia River.

But Slockish, a traditional river chief of the Klickitat Band of the Yakama Nation, would endure it all again to protect his right of access to the river and the fish that his people believe were bestowed to them by the Creator.

“It’s a sacred covenant,” he said. “Nothing’s more important.”

Tribal fishermen like Slockish have drawn the ire of commercial and sport fisherman as well as government officials over the decades for engaging in an act of faith. For Slockish and his ancestors, who have inhabited the Columbia River Basin “since the beginning of time,” stewardship of the land, the river and its fish, animals and plant life is a divine contract at the core of a millennia-old religious practice. They’ve fished in the river not just to practice their faith, but also to eke out a livelihood.

Tribal fishing rights along the Columbia have spurred bitter, drawn-out legal and legislative battles. This is despite an 1855 treaty with the federal government stating that the tribes would cede most of their lands, but retain their fishing rights.

In April 1983, Slockish and four other fishermen were convicted in U.S. District Court for selling salmon caught out of season to undercover federal agents in a sting that became known as “Salmon Scam.” Slockish was charged with illegally taking 16 fish from the river.

Tom Keefe Jr., a Washington-based civil rights lawyer who represented the fishermen in that case, said federal agents maintained 40,000 salmon were missing from the river but later discovered that the fish had migrated to tributaries because of pollution.

Keefe said that for Slockish and the other fishermen, the fight to save the river and its resources has always been about religious freedom. A practicing Catholic, Keefe said representing the fishermen gave him a window into the spiritual lives of the “river people.”

“To them the Columbia River is a giant cathedral that stretches from the mouth of the Pacific Ocean to the mountains of Canada,” he said.

Slockish is “a man of integrity and commitment,” Keefe added. His voice cracked with emotion as he described the moment the Klickitat chief removed his wedding band right before heading to prison, placing it in Keefe’s palm for safekeeping.

Slockish hasn’t stopped fighting for the river. After his release from prison, he focused his efforts on water quality and health issues related to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Benton County, Washington, which was decommissioned in 1989. The plant released significant amounts of radioactive waste into the river, causing irreparable ecological harm.

For the past two decades, Slockish has made presentations at local elementary schools around Thanksgiving about the spiritual significance of the river and its fish. He has represented the Yakama Nation on several river-related commissions and committees and still serves on the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the tribes and their rights along the river.

Slockish and the other fishermen’s high-profile case has helped bring attention to their issues and given tribes better access to the river, said Jeremy FiveCrows, the organization’s spokesman.

The 20 months Slockish spent in prison “were hell,” but it’s all about keeping a promise he made as a 14-year-old — to the first salmon he ever caught — to be a good steward of the land.

Slockish still recalls the way that fish looked him “dead in the eye” as if to say: “I’ve done my job. Now you do yours.”

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Associated Press

Prisons chief killed in Indian-controlled Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — The prisons chief in Indian-controlled Kashmir has been killed, officials said Tuesday, as India’s powerful home minister arrived in the disputed Himalayan region on a three-day visit. The body of Director-General of Prisons Hemant Kumar Lohia bore multiple wounds and was found Monday night at his friend’s home in the southern […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

21 mountaineers missing after avalanche in northern India

NEW DELHI (AP) — At least 21 trainee mountaineers were reported missing after getting trapped in an avalanche in northern India, officials said Tuesday. A group of 29 people was hit by an avalanche on a mountain peak located in the Gangotri range of the Garhwal Himalayas on Tuesday morning, said Uttarakhand state police chief […]
1 day ago
FILE - A Goodwill store sign is shown in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Goodwill Industr...
Associated Press

Iconic Goodwill gets serious with online for thrifters

NEW YORK (AP) — Thrifters who flock to Goodwill stores will now be able to do some serious treasure hunting online as well. The Goodwill Industries International Inc., the 120-year-old non-profit organization that operates 3,300 stores in the U.S., and Canada, has launched an online business as part of a newly incorporated venture called GoodwillFinds. […]
1 day ago
A man walks in front of gate at the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, Indonesia, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022....
Associated Press

Indonesia police: Stadium exit gates too small for escape

MALANG, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesian police said Tuesday that the gates at the soccer stadium where police fired tear gas and set off a deadly crush were too small and could only accommodate two at a time when hundreds were trying to escape. Photos from the Malang stadium where 125 people died and hundreds were […]
1 day ago
Robert Habeck, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, and Markus Krebber, ri...
Associated Press

German energy giant RWE to end coal use by 2030

BERLIN (AP) — German energy giant RWE said Tuesday that it will phase out the burning of coal by 2030, saving 280 million metric tons of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. The decision will accelerate the closure of some of Europe’s most polluting power plants and a vast lignite strip mine in the west of the […]
1 day ago
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk out of the White House to board Marine One in Wa...
Associated Press

Biden marks 100 days since Dobbs ruling as Dems eye midterms

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is highlighting his administration’s efforts to protect access to abortion as he marks 100 days since the Supreme Court overturned a national right to the procedure and Democrats hope the issue will galvanize their voters ahead of the midterm elections. Biden on Tuesday will attend the second meeting of […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
...

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!
...

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
River chief imprisoned for fishing fights for sacred rights