Cultural Chronology

A Summary of Significant Events Affecting the Columbia Basin Anadromous Fish Resources and the Tribes’ Rights to Fish

Time Immemorial

Indian people have lived in the Columbia River Basin for thousands of years. Salmon is their staple of life and the foundation of their culture and economy. It is also an important part of their religion. According to conservative estimates, the Columbia River’s annual salmon returns range from 11-16 million fish before European settlement.


During this period, the Priest Rapids prophet Smohalla leads a revival of the traditional Indian religion in which the salmon feast is a vital part.


The Lewis and Clark expedition travels down the Columbia River. Indian society compromised at least 100,0000 mostly Sahaptin- and Chinookan-speaking peoples. According to conservative estimates, salmon harvest approximated 42 million pounds annually with average yearly run sizes of 10-16 million salmon.


Treaties with Columbia River tribes are signed. In these treaties, tribes cede most of their lands, but reserve the right to fish at “all usual and accustomed fishing places…in common with citizens.”


In the first major fishing rights case to reach the Supreme Court, U.S. v. Winans, the justices hold that treaty Indians have reserved the right to cross non-Indian lands to fish at “usual and accustomed” places and that treaties are to be interpreted the way Indians had understood them.


Congress passes the Bonneville Project Act to market power from federal dams on the Columbia. Dams would eventually inundate important Indian fishing places and impede salmon migration to 2,800 miles of fish habitat.Congress passed the Mitchell Act, which promised that fish lost because of the dams.


Passage barriers are installed to prevent lamprey (eels) from using fish ladders at Bonneville Dam. However lamprey continue to ingrate upstream through navigation locks.


The Supreme Court decides in Tulee v. Washington that because a treaty takes precedence over state law, Indians with tribal treaty rights can not be required to buy state fishing licenses. However, the court also rules that the state can regulate treaty fisheries for purposes of conservation.


Congress sets aside lands as mitigation for inundating Indian villages behind Bonneville Dam. (By the 1960s, five in-lieu sites were set aside: Cooks, Wind River, Underwood, Lone Pine, and Cascade Locks.)


State and federal fish agencies begin implementing the Mitchell Act, siting only two of the 25 hatcheries in the tribes’ upriver fishing areas.


Celilo Falls is inundated behind the newly completed The Dalles Dam.

The Columbia River Compact restricts commercial fishing between Bonneville and Miller Island and prohibits all commercial salmon fishing (treaty Indian & non-Indian) above Miller Island.


The U.S. and Canada sign the Columbia River Treaty. The treaty requires Canada to build three massive water storage dams and allows the U.S. to build Libby Dam. The treaty deals solely with flood control and hydropower generation. The tribes are not consulted and tribal fishing interests are not addressed in the treaty.


Affirming the federal district court’s ruling in Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation v. Maison, the appeals court finds that the state could not restrict off-reservation treaty fishing unless the restrictions were indispensable to conservation.


A commercial treaty fishery for summer chinook occurs. It will be the last such fishery for more than four decades.


During a series of winter storms, massive landslides from logging roads and  clear cuts inundate the South Fork Salmon River watershed with sediment, drastically reducing salmon survival in the South Fork, which was until then the single largest producer of summer chinook in the Snake River Basin.


With completion of Hells Canyon Dam, it and seven other dams on the upper Snake River block 600 miles of tributary and mainstem salmon habitat.


Fourteen members of the Yakama tribe file suit (Sohappy v. Smith) against Oregon’s regulation of off-reservation fishing. The United States and the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes file a related lawsuit, United States v. Oregon. The federal court hears the two cases together and then, in 1978, closes Sohappy v. Smith. The court continues its jurisdiction in U.S. v. Oregon to the present day.


In deciding Sohappy v. Smith/United States v. Oregon, Federal District Judge Robert Belloni recognizes the rights of tribes to fish at all usual and accustomed fishing places and rules that the tribes are entitled to a “fair share” of the fish runs. The Belloni decision holds that the state is prohibited from discriminating against treaty fishing and that state power is limited in regulating treaty Indian fisheries, i.e., the state can regulate only when “reasonable and necessary for conservation.”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts its last year of lamprey counts at mainstem dams. At Bonneville Dam the count is 380,000. (Counts resume in the late 1990s.)


With the continuing decline in salmon runs, commercial sturgeon fishing becomes vital to many tribal fishers.


Congress authorizes the Clean Water Act to restore the biological, physical, and chemical inebriety of the nation’s waterways.


The Endangered Species Act, which defines protection for species that are threatened or endangered as defined by the Act, is passed by Congress.


In U.S. v. Washington (Boldt decision), Judge George Boldt mandates that a “fair share” is 50 percent of the harvestable fish destined to pass the tribes’ usual and accustomed fishing places and reaffirms tribal management powers.

In Settler v. Lameer, the federal court rules that the treaty fishing right is a tribal right, not an individual right, and that the tribes reserved in treaties the authority to regulate tribal fishing on and off the reservations.


Judge Belloni applies the 50/50 principle to Columbia River fisheries in U.S. v. Oregon.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes Lower Granite Dam, the last of four lower Snake River dams, compounding downstream passage problems and causing further declines in fish runs. The total number of dams on the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers rises to 18.


The National Forest Management Act passes. This requires national forests to develop plans to manage forests consistent with protect of soils, vegetation, water quality, and aquatic habitat needed to provide viable fish and wildlife populations.

The Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act asserts exclusive U.S. management authority and established regional management councils to oversee ocean fisheries 3-200 miles offshore.

The Lower Snake River Compensation Program authorizes mitigation for losses caused by the construction of the four federal dams on the lower Snake River. Spring and summer chinook and steelhead are the focus of artificial propagation programs. Fall chinook are moved downstream into Washington. Coho and sockeye are ignored.


In February, the federal court, under its jurisdiction in U.S. v. Oregon, approves a five-year plan that sets up an in-river harvest-sharing formula between non-Indian and Indian fisheries. The plan fails because it did not include specific controls on ocean harvests or specific measures to replace fish runs destroyed by development.

In March, Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla, and Nez Perce tribes create, by resolution, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The last commercial treaty fishery for spring chinook occurs. For the next 24 years tribal fisheries for spring chinook will be limited to ceremonial and subsistence fishing.


The Supreme Court upholds U.S. v. Washington (Boldt Decision).

Columbia River, Puget Sound, and Washington coastal tribes sues the Secretary of Commerce over ocean fishing regulations because a large percentage of treaty fish were being caught in waters managed by the Department of Commerce. Columbia River tribes also sues in 1980, 1981, and 1982 (Confederated Tribes, et al. v. Kreps; Yakama, et al. v. Klutznik; Hoh v. Baldrige; and Yakama, et al. v. Baldrige). The federal government is held to have a legal obligation to regulate the ocean fishery to ensure that a reasonable number of salmon reached tribal fishing places on the Columbia River.


Congress passes the Northwest Power Act, which, for the first time, mandates that Columbia River power production and fisheries be managed as co-equals. It calls for a Fish and Wildlife program to make up for losses caused by federal water development in the Basin.

The Federal District Court issues the U.S. v. Washington (Phase II) decision that includes hatchery-produced fish in the 50/50 allocation and affirms a right to protection of the habitat supporting fish runs subject to treaty catch.

Congress passes the federal Superfund law in response to concerns over abandoned toxic waste sites. By 1995, at least 43 sites in the Columbia River Basin have fallen under the Act. Other pollution problems exist at pulp and paper mills, metals production facilities, lumber mills, food manufacturing facilities, and power-generating plants.


The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the body charged with implementing the Northwest Power Act, adopts a Fish and Wildlife Program that drew heavily from tribal recommendations.

Recommendations include tribal proposals to build their own salmon production facilities. As of 1995, one of these proposed hatcheries was built. Other tribal facilities were being studied while at least 20 other state and federal production facilities were built.


The Northwest Power and Conservation Council adopts the Columbia River Fish and Wildlife Program. The program has been amended numerous time since its inception, and many of the tribes’ recommendations were filtered out.

In August, the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes establish the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Enforcement department was  and charge it with enforcing tribal fishing regulations along the Columbia River Zone 6.


The Nez Perce, Umatilla and Yakama tribes initiate challenges to forest plans and umber sales in the basin’s national forests where those plans and sales threaten to damage fish habitat. Since them, more than 30 have been filed.


Salmon released from Umatilla Hatchery facilities in 1981 return to the Umatilla River. These are the first salmon to return since passage was blocked by an irrigation dam in 1914.


The United States President and the Canadian Prime Minister sign the U.S./Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty, which reduces Canadian and Alaskan harvest of Columbia River salmon and adds tribal representation to the international decision-making body along with other government fish managers.


Coho salmon in the Snake River go extinct. Total salmon run size to the Columbia River falls to 2.9 million.


Congress directs the U.S. Corps of Engineers to acquire and develop at least six sites on the Bonneville pool and to improve 20 specified locations for treaty fishing access sites between Bonneville and McNary dams. By 2011, this legislation creates 26 treaty fishing access sites to help mitigate for tribal losses caused by construction and operations of Columbia River system dams.

After five years of negotiations, the states of Oregon and Washington, federal fishery agencies, and the treaty tribes agree to the Columbia River Fish Management Plan, a new, detailed harvest and fish production process under the authority of U.S. v. Oregon. Judge Marsh enters the plan as an order of the U.S. District Court.


Regional leaders, convening a Salmon Summit, fail to find solutions to the salmon crisis.


Sockeye from the Snake River, the Columbia’s largest tributary, is the first Columbia Basin salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. Eventually 11 more stocks of Columbia Basin salmon are listed.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) orders eight of the 19 pulp mills in the Columbia River Basin to reduce dioxin discharges by 85 percent. The eight bleach-kraft pulp mills produce dioxin as a result of using chlorine bleach.


The United States and Canada fail to reach a chinook harvest agreement. The following year, the U.S. State Department puts the U.S. Section of the Pacific Salmon Commission on notice that it is in jeopardy of not meeting its international requirement under the U.S.-Canada Salmon Interception Treaty with regard to chinook. It would be another seven years before this impasse would be resolved.


The Columbia’s total salmon run size drops to 900,000. The upriver portion, counted at Bonneville Dam, amounts to 600,000. For the rest of the decade, the tribes have only one remaining commercial fishery, the fall season.

Federal Judge Dwyer holds that EPA and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality acted improperly when failing to list many Idaho streams as “water quality limited” under the Clean Water Act. Subsequently, more than 900 streams are added to Idaho’s list of streams that fail to fully support beneficial uses such as salmon spawning and rearing.


In Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) v. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), brought under the ESA, Judge Marsh rules that NMFS’ biological opinion of “no jeopardy” regarding hydrosystem operations on the Columbia and Snake violated the act. He ordera the fish management parties to recommend to NMFS what hydrosystem changes were needed to restore endangered salmon.

U.S. v. Oregon fall season litigation pits tribal treaty rights against the Endangered Species Act. The conflict gads the potential to shut down the tribal Zone 6 fishery. The dispute is settled out of court. The Snake River fall chinook supplementation program is a direct result of this litigation.

In Northwest Resources Information Center, et al. v. Northwest Power Planning Council, the federal appeals court rules in favor of the Yakama Nation’s claim that the Council violated the Northwest Power Act in developing the Strategy for Salmon and remands the salmon plan back to the Council.

At 9,800, the upriver spring chinook run is the lowest on record. None of the tribal longhouses (places of worship) have enough salmon for their ceremonies.


The four CRITFC member tribes developed their own Columbia River salmon restoration plan, Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit (Spirit of the Salmon). The plan’s goal is to have 4 million salmon returning to the Columbia River by 2020.

Back to Top Back to Top