American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image

Sohappy, Sr., David

The name David Sohappy, Sr. (Wanapam), has come to symbolize the struggle of Indian peoples of the Columbia River and its tributaries to preserve the salmon runs that have nourished and sustained their societies for thousands of years.

Sohappy's ancestors traded fish with the 1805 Lewis and Clark expedition. Kettle Falls in Washington and Celilo Falls near The Dalles in Oregon were two of the largest Indian fisheries in North America and gathering places for the Indian nations of the Plateau and beyond. The biggest part of the Native diet has always been fish. Catching salmon is a way of life, and religious beliefs and ceremonies are closely tied to preserving the fish runs. In 1855, treaties were signed with Northwest Indian nations pledging that "for as long as the sun shines, as long as the mountains stand, and as long as the river flows," the River People would be able to fish at their accustomed places. Yet by the end of the nineteenth century, environmental degradation caused by fish wheels (mechanized fish harvesters), canneries, logging, and agriculture had seriously endangered the fish and impacted the lives of the "River People."

Seventeen dams constructed on the Columbia and Snake River spawning grounds also had a deleterious effect. Nevertheless, since the late 1950s, the Indians of the Northwest have found themselves the official scapegoat for the salmon decline, accused of overfishing. "Can an Indian save a salmon" was one of the racist slogans gracing bumper stickers on non-Indian cars in the 1980s.

David Sohappy, Sr. was born in 1925. His name is derived from souiehappie, meaning "shoving something under a ledge" in the Wanapam Indian language. (Wana means "river," and pam means "people of.") The original Wanapam villages ranged from the mouth of the Little White Salmon River upstream to Priest Rapids. Sohappy's family was evicted from their ancestral home at Priest Rapids and White Bluff in the 1940s to make room for the Hanford nuclear facility. Eventually, David and his family moved to Cook's Landing at the mouth of the Little White Salmon River in Washington.

David Sohappy followed the old Wanapam religion his entire life, a religion that spurns violence and alcohol consumption. He is a lineal descendent of the Indian prophet Smohalla, who founded the Waashat (or dreamer) religion. He told his followers that "God commanded that the lands and fisheries should be common to all who lived upon them; that they were never to be marked off or divided, but that the people should enjoy the fruits that God planted in the land, and the animals that lived upon it, and the fishes in the water . . . This is the old law." The Wanapam refused to participate in the 1855 treaty negotiations with the United States and resisted government efforts to remove them to the Yakama Indian Reservation. Smohalla's teachings inspired resistance to federal assimilationist policies.

Sohappy grew up on his grandmother's allotted land on the Yakama Indian Reservation. He was taught to follow the seasonal food cycles of traditional Wanapam culture that consisted of wild game, fish, roots, and huckleberries. He fished for salmon without regard to season or limit, and he followed the traditional practices of salmon conservation handed down by his ancestors. He was taught that to fish is to give thanks to the Creator and to show respect for the Creator's gift of life, salmon. He believed that only the Creator—not the state, federal, or even Native governments—could control his traditional fishing practices.

Sohappy believed that he could live where he fished, at Cook's Landing on the Columbia River, especially since the government never kept its promise to provide new houses and fishing sites for those displaced by dam construction. Cook's Landing is one of five small fishing sites approved by the federal government "in lieu" of the thirty-seven Indian communities flooded out by the construction of Bonneville Dam in 1933. No matter what the need, he never accepted welfare, unemployment compensation, or surplus commodities. Instead, he and his family ate salmon at almost every meal, traded or sold fish for other food staples and their modest cash needs, gathered roots and berries, and hunted. Sohappy also provided salmon for tribal ceremonies and conducted religious ceremonies in the family longhouse.

In 1981, fish runs were at an all-time low, and federal enforcement agencies proclaimed the disappearance of 40,000 Chinook salmon between Boneville and McNary dams on the Columbia River. This was District Six, an area designated by the courts exclusively for Indian fishing. Federal officials then charged that the fish were taken by Indian poachers, chief among whom were David Sohappy and members of his extended family.

On June 17, 1982, David Sohappy, his wife, son, and seventy-five other Indian fishermen were arrested for fishing out of season. The Sohappys' front door was kicked down and the house ransacked by local, state, and federal agents. A sting operation, code-named Salmonscam, had been under way for fourteen months to entrap the Indian fisherfolk who openly took salmon in defiance of state regulations, asserting their treaty right to fish. David Sohappy and his son were convicted under the Lacey Amendment to the Black Bass Act, and each was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Other Indian fishers received lesser sentences. In contrast, two non-Indian poachers received only thirty days in prison and a suspended sentence, respectively.

During the trial, testimony about Sohappy's religion and traditional fish conservation practices was not allowed. It was later found that most of the "missing fish" Sohappy and his fellow River Indians were accused of poaching were not missing after all. Finding the dams difficult to navigate, the fish had simply spawned in tributaries along the Columbia before reaching McNary Dam. In addition, an aluminum plant located upriver from The Dalles Dam had spilled fluorides into the river, confusing the fish that were not killed by the effluent.

David, an elder and spiritual leader in the Feather Cult of the Waashat or Seven Drums Religion, spent twenty months in a federal prison before an international protest and the intervention by Senator Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, led to his release in June of 1988. A ruling by the Yakama tribal court had already found Sohappy and the other defendants not guilty of the poaching charges. Meanwhile, at Sohappy's home at Cook's Landing, federal officials issued an eviction notice. He took the eviction notice to court and won in what turned out to be his last battle before his untimely death three years later. Having suffered diabetic strokes in prison, Sohappy's health broke and he died in a nursing home on May 6, 1991.

This was not the first time that David Sohappy had tested the white man's unjust laws that violated Indian treaty rights. During the 1960s and 1970s the Northwest fishing struggle centered on the much publicized fishins in western Washington at Frank's Landing. Meanwhile, on the Columbia, Sohappy fished according to his traditional religious beliefs, using fish traps he had built from driftwood until state game and fishing officials raided his camp and beat family members. In 1968 he and his cousin, Richard Sohappy, and a dozen others were jailed on the charge of illegal fishing.

The two Sohappys then became plaintiffs in the landmark federal case of Sohappy v. Smith. On July 8, 1969, U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Belloni ruled that Indian fishers are allowed to harvest their fair share of the Columbia River salmon runs. A few years later in 1974, Judge George Boldt ruled that the "fair and equitable" in the earlier decision meant 50 percent of harvestable fish and that authority to regulate tribal fishing on and off the reservations was reserved for the Indian treaty nations. Yet despite these favorable legal decisions, the states of Washington and Oregon continued to interfere with Indian fishing, and federal authorities stepped up their harassment of the Sohappys.

When he died, David Sohappy was buried according to the old religion of his ancestors, with traditional songs and wrapped in a Pendleton blanket. His attorney, Tom Keefe, Jr. recalled that solemn occasion:

And while the sun chased a crescent moon across the Yakima Valley, I thanked David Sohappy for the time we had spent together, and I wondered how the salmon he had fought to protect would fare in his absence. Now he is gone, and natural runs of Chinook that fed his family since time immemorial are headed for the Endangered Species Act list. "Be glad for my dad," David Sohappy, Jr., told the mourners. "He is free now, he doesn't need any tears" (Grinde and Johansen, 1995, 166).

Steve Talbot

Further Reading
Grinde, Donald A., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1995. Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples, 145–169. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.; Hunn, Eugene S. 1996. "Columbia River Indians." Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Mary B. Davis, 127–128. New York: Garland Publishing.; Ulrich, Roberta. 1999. "Conviction and Eviction." In Empty Nets: Indians, Dams, and the Columbia River. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer