A fishing dispute between area tribes has reached the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The dispute is over whether the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe should be permitted to fish for salmon and steelhead in the Skagit River.

While the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community are allowed to fish the Skagit River under a 1974 federal court ruling known as the Boldt Decision, the Sauk-Suiattle’s claim that it should be allowed to fish the river is being contested in court.

The Sauk-Suiattle tribe filed the appeal this week.

The tribe argues that an about 5-mile stretch of the upper river is part of what is known as a tribe’s “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds and should be recognized as such under the Boldt Decision. In that case, Judge George Boldt found that tribes that signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855 had the right to fish in their usual and accustomed fishing grounds.

In his ruling, Boldt determined that the traditional fishing grounds for the Sauk-Suiattle tribe included the Sauk, Cascade and Suiattle rivers, as well as nine creeks that flow into those rivers. All of those rivers and creeks funnel into the Skagit River upstream of the Rockport area.

Map.png

This historical map depicts where the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe maintained a village at the confluence of the Sauk and Skagit rivers. 

Today, the Sauk-Suiattle tribe argues that because the tribe had a village where the Skagit and Sauk rivers meet and because tribal members were known to travel between the Sauk and Cascade rivers by canoe on the Skagit River, at least that segment of the Skagit River should be considered the tribe’s traditional fishing area.

The Upper Skagit, the Swinomish and some other Western Washington tribes disagree.

“Sauk should not be allowed to bootstrap its U&A grounds,” the Tulalip Tribes wrote in a court filing.

The legal battle began in United States District Court for the Western District of Washington in September 2020.

Leaders of the Upper Skagit and Swinomish tribes were alarmed at that time when the Sauk-Suiattle started fishing for coho salmon on the Skagit River from about the Cascade River Road bridge near Marblemount to Rocky Creek about four miles west.

The Upper Skagit immediately filed a lawsuit under the Boldt Decision.

For the Upper Skagit and Swinomish tribes, if the Sauk-Suiattle tribe fishes the Skagit River, it means fewer fish for them as tribes agree to certain shares of salmon and steelhead runs each year.

“Sauk fishing in the Skagit River will reduce Upper Skagit’s treaty right to fish in its U&A and interfere with the Tribe’s cultural and religious practice,” Upper Skagit Indian Tribe Natural Resources Director Scott Schuyler wrote in a court filing.

In October 2021, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the Upper Skagit tribe.

“We believe the courts got this decision right,” Schuyler told the Skagit Valley Herald. “It was based on the original Boldt case in 1974 ... and we believe it should be reaffirmed in the appeal process.”

The ongoing case is one of many fights waged between Western Washington tribes over interpretations of usual and accustomed fishing areas since the Boldt Decision played out nearly 50 years ago.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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