American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) is a cooperative resource management organization composed of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and the Nez Percé tribe. Founded in 1977, following a string of tribal court victories, its stated mission is "to ensure a unified voice in the overall management of the fishery resources, and as managers, to protect reserved treaty rights through the exercise of the inherent sovereign powers of the tribes." CRITFC operates on the principles of consensus and collaboration, working through the fish and wildlife committees of its constituent tribes and in consultation with various state and federal agencies to harmonize indigenous traditions with the best modern science and the realities of the modern river. Together with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, its counterpart among the tribes of Puget Sound, CRITFC has become an important player in the ongoing effort to protect and restore the endangered salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest.

The indigenous communities of the Columbia Basin struggled for more than a century to have their voices heard by the Euro-American interests and institutions that dominate the river. By treaties signed in 1855, the tribes reserved "the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places, in common with the citizens of the Territory." Starting in the 1860s, however, the commercialization of salmon and other forms of economic development (especially dam construction) began to decimate fish populations, destroy spawning habitat, and obstruct Indian access to the river. Declining salmon runs and increasing competition for fishing sites at Celilo Falls compelled the Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes to establish the Celilo Fish Committee (CFC) in 1936. This organization, which also included representatives from local Columbia River Indian communities, constituted the first intertribal effort to settle disputes and prevent outside interference. The CFC tried for twenty years to resolve conflicts and regulate harvests, but internal strife and limited authority hindered its effectiveness until the backwaters of The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo Falls in 1957. The tribes continued to assert their sovereignty, however, and federal court rulings in U.S. v. Oregon (1968) and U.S. v. Washington (1974) finally established their right to participate in fisheries management.

CRITFC emerged from a 1976 Memorandum of Understanding among the four treaty tribes with the help of the Bonneville Power Administration, which agreed to fund tribal participation as part of its legal obligation to mitigate the effects of federal dams. The tribes then passed resolutions authorizing the commission, and by March 1977 they had adopted its constitution and bylaws. CRITFC's structure reflects the determination of its founders to overcome tribal differences and practice cooperative management. The four tribal fish and wildlife committees comprise the commission's governing body, and they must reach consensus before it can act on their behalf. Each tribal committee appoints several commissioners, who annually select three officers (vice chair, secretary, and treasurer) and a chairperson from among their ranks, with each tribe holding the chair on a rotating basis. The position of executive director also rotates among the tribes to avoid charges of bias. Although disagreements occasionally arise within the commission, it remains committed to "unity of action in service of the salmon."

CRITFC has expanded greatly in size and expertise since the late 1970s. At first, it employed only two fish biologists and depended heavily on state and federal fishery agencies for advice and support. Over the years, as the tribes gained confidence and clout, CRITFC's staff grew to include additional biologists, fish passage specialists, policy analysts, attorneys, public relations officials, and law enforcement personnel. Some tribal fishers initially resented the imposition of another layer of management, but most now view the enforcement program as essential to their own safety and protection as well as to the preservation of the salmon. CRITFC has also earned the respect (if not always the affection) of state and federal agencies, which soon discovered that the tribes had their own management objectives. Commission staffers are active in gathering scientific data, setting fishery seasons and harvest quotas, carrying out habitat restoration projects, offering technical support to tribal hatcheries, conducting legal research, and lobbying policy makers. In the late 1990s, CRITFC developed its own management plan, called Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit ("Spirit of the Salmon"). Much bolder than the measures favored by state, federal, and private interests, the tribal plan seeks quite simply "to put fish back in the rivers and protect the watersheds where fish live." "We have to take care of them so that they can take care of us," explained former executive director Ted Strong (Yakama). "Entwined together inextricably, no less now than ever before, are the fates of both the salmon and the Indian people."

Andrew H. Fisher

Further Reading
Cohen, Fay G. 1986. Treaties on Trial: The Continuing Controversy over Northwest Indian Fishing Rights. Seattle: University of Washington Press.; Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. No date. Available at: Accessed March 25, 2006.; Dompier, Douglas W. 2005. The Fight of the Salmon People: Blending Tribal Tradition with Modern Science to Save Sacred Fish. Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris Corporation.

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