Indian Fishing Rights on the Grand Ronde-Siletz Indian Agency

Indian Fishing Rights on the Grand Ronde-Siletz Indian Agency

Over the course of the years  one question about the tribes of western Oregon has never been fully answered, Do the Tribal Members of the Grand Ronde and Siletz Reservations possess fishing rights? This essay offers a few case studies and a short analysis of the issue and question, that in many ways still exists today. In addition, I show how most people in the region do not understand tribal histories and have little or no knowledge of what occurred at the reservations because they were separated and segregated from the American communities of Oregon. This situation contributed greatly to the lack of understanding of Indian rights to fishing and hunting in the region.


The Tribes of the region, some 60 tribes in western Oregon, were avid fishermen. Tribes at features like Willamette falls, the Cascades, and The Dalles had preferential access to fish, especially the anadramous salmon species, steelhead, lamprey, sturgeon, and smelt. The tribal villages of the Clackamas, Wasco, Wishram, Cascades (Watlala), and other Chinookans benefited greatly by living in villages at the base of such river features.  Other tribes in interior valley waterways, like the Willamette valley watershed, also fished extensively but they balanced this food source with gathering and hunting. The Kalapuyans were well known for trading with the Clackamas at Willamette Falls, their cooked and prepared camas, for dried salmon.

The Coastal tribes, like the southern Oregon athapaskans, Tututnis, Coos, Coquille, and north coast Tillamooks, had access to all coastal environments, including river systems, estuaries, off-shore resources, and trade with interior tribes. As such all tribes in Oregon accessed fish and waterways for resources. Other resources in waterways include wapato (Indian potato), reeds, and sedges for basketry weaving, aquatic mammals (whales, otters, beaver), amphibians (frogs etc) crayfish (crawdads) shellfish and waterfowl. As such the waterways of Oregon features the main population centers for all Tribal peoples, and the main source of food for many.  Access to waterways was a way of life, part of their primary cultures, which included associated activities like trade, and efficient travel and commerce using canoes. Also associated, is the political economy of all regional tribes, their systems of kinship and systems of war and dominance. Wealth in the region was very much regulated by which tribes had access to the best waterways and aquatic resources.

Many tribes lived on the edge of the aquatic environment and the inland forest, giving them access to two lush resource areas. Those tribes who lived the best, appear to have had a balanced relationship between the aquatic and the inland areas, which allows for better access to  annual resource supplies and a more sustainable lifeways. All tribes lived in a seasonal calendar, called Seasonal Round, where they would live through the harsh winters in permanent villages. In the spring, summer, and fall, most tribes would travel about their traditional homelands to noted resource areas and harvest, fish and hunt for resources. Many of these resources would be processed in overwhelming quantities, preserved and stored for winter food. At times an abundance of stored and preserved food would allow them to trade with other tribes for resources and wealth items that they did not have. This pattern of living was a fact of life for at least 8,000 years in western Oregon. The lifeway was a permanent part of the cultures of these tribal peoples and belies the simplistic definition of American Indian tribes,  in anthropology, as being Hunters and Gatherers. There is something much more complex, and permanent, than the aforementioned term implies.

In the 1850’s, American settlers and their government sought to removal of the tribes from their original traditional lands. By 1853 tribes were being removed to reservations where they could no longer freely access their traditional resources. The seasonal rounds were interrupted by the fact that many of their traditional resources, like camas, wapato, and acorns, were being plowed under or logged by settler farmers seeking to build their farms and create vast agricultural fields. Waves of Oregon pioneers took all of the lands in the Willamette Valley leaving none for the tribes by 1851. Seeking to remove the tribes permanently, the federal government negotiated treaties with the Oregon tribes in 1853 to 1855. The first treaties were in the areas with the richest and wealthiest identified resources, like the Willamette Valley.

The treaties set aside a “permanent reservation” for the tribes to hold in perpetuity. The western Oregon reservations were established in the Coast range and in the Grand Ronde valley, a medium sized valley at the eastern side of the Coast range. The tribes began to be removed to the Grand Ronde and Coast reservations in 1856, propelled by conflicts between the tribes and the settlers, ranchers, and gold miners.  Volunteer Ranger, or the militia, hired by the Oregon Territorial government and the State of California began attacking tribes in an attempt at ethnic cleansing of the whole west coast of the scourge of the tribes. The United States Army and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs worked to honor the treaties and moved to preserve them on reservations, where the tribes would be protected from attempts at genocide by the militia. Yet even living on the reservations did not halt the attacks, as the militia entered the Table Rock Reservation to pursue their extermination of the tribes. The federal government then removed the tribes to the permanent reservations to halt the conflict.

Over the winter of 1856 the tribes were removed to the reservations. Once removed the some 4000 people were completely dependent on the federal government for all food, medicines, and resources. They were not allowed to have weapons, so that could not hunt, they were not allowed to leave, or be subject to recapture and imprisonment. They therefore could not access their traditional resources. The Indian agents, charged with fully supporting some 4000 Indians were overwhelmed, and could not effectively feed all of these people. Housing for the first few years was in canvas tents, and food was beef, pork, and flour, provided by the agents. For the first few years, most shipments of food and supplies came from the east coast, as the federal government bought resources from the suppliers in New York and Boston and shipped them to the west coast. In time, the agents began petitioning to be able to buy locally, so to get better prices and a more stable supply line.

But still for at least a decade, funding to the reservations was inconsistent. Appropriations for the annual reservation budgets had to wait for Congress to approve them, and as such there were times when months would go by without cash in the bank. Therefore much of the purchasing happened on credit and the agents were constantly working to pay their outstanding accounts.

Sometime in the early 1860’s, with resource and funding problems continuing, the federal government ordered the agents to allow the tribes to gather their food from their traditional sources. Attempts to even get agriculture going at the reservations were failing, and Indian leaders complained they did not have plows, seed or teams of oxen to do the work of feeding their families. In addition, some lands were nutrient poor for regular planting and easily exhausted of nutrients. The majority of the Grand Ronde valley consists of heavy clay soils, and cannot sustain a consistent annual food harvest.

The agent at Grand Ronde worked to develop a fishery for the tribes just outside of the reservation, at the Salmon river, in Tillamook called the Nechesne. A road was built by the reservation people to the Salmon River and regular trips began to gather fish the river. The area of the Salmon river was already part of a reservation encampment, reserved for the Nechesne Tillamookan tribes, and later Nestuckans, Alseas, Siuslaws, and Coos people came there. Until at least 1886, these peoples would visit the Grand Ronde Reservation to access services and get medical attention. Until 1886, the Salmon river encampment and the northern area of the Coast Reservation was attended to by the agents at Grand Ronde simply because there was not efficient transportation -no roads- to the north coast from the Siletz valley.

The Salmon River fishery continued as a regular part of the Grand Ronde seasonal culture well into the 20th century. Tribal members of Grand Ronde and the Siletz reservations, many of them, had land allotments along the road and along the river at Otis and Rose Lodge. The fishery continued to be accessed  by the tribes after the road became state property. In the 20th century, the State of Oregon began passing laws regarding sport fishing and took an interest in the Indians who fished with gill nets.

Once Grand Ronde was restored in 1983, after having been terminated in 1954, the tribe negotiated the right to issue state fishing licenses to its membership though the Natural Resources office. Members get a specific right to fish under those licenses on the Salmon River. Still later, in about 2009, the tribe worked with the State to gain ceremonial hunting rights in a area north of the current reservation. This is a special license which the tribe enjoys nearly year round, to provide deer, elk, and bear  meat to the tribal members for ceremonial events. In addition, the Natural Resources Department of the Grand Ronde tribe manages over 12,000 acres of timberland and studies and supports fish and animal species. Most recently, in 2019 the Grand Ronde tribe built a fishing platform at Willamette Falls, under protestations for other tribes, and engages in an annual first fish ceremony in the Spring.

The Coast Reservation communities were tribes removed from the southern coast to live on the Coast Reservation. They were placed at the various large river estuaries in the coastal zone. These tribes were clustered in these locations for several reasons, first because they were waiting for the Coast treaty to be signed and without the treaty there was no federal funding guaranteed for annual expenses and food. They waited for 17 years for the treaty to be ratified. In this time they had to access the fish and shellfish resources of the coast and inland rivers for food because the promises of the government to feed them once they removed were never honored. For a time they were made to try agriculture, foods like oats and wheat failed on the coast and they were left with potatoes and native foods. These tribes lived in a true subsistence environment with no choice but to fish for their food.

Case Studies (summaries)

In the 1930’s this issue of Indians fishing in state waters came to the fore, and the state of Oregon began a discussion as to how the Indians were to be treated for their rights as United States citizens under state laws.

Quotes from a letter of Earl Woolbridge, Supt. Grand Ronde-Siletz Indian Agency, November 8, 1938.

“The question of whether the state of Oregon has jurisdiction over Indian fishing or hunting upon Indian lands for which no fee patents have been issued is presented in Supt. Jackson’s Letter. It may be stated that until the United States issued fee patents it does not relinquish title and consequently retains jurisdiction over those Indians to whom it has not issued fee patents, in other words, the jurisdiction of the United States continues over them so long as they remain in trust patent status.

If a tribal Indian residing on the reservation commits a crime on land to which the United States has not relinquished title, the jurisdiction of the Federal Government is exclusive.

However, if a defendant, while still a ward of the Government, commits an act in violation of a State statute upon lands off the reservation, he is amenable to State law. In such case the State Jurisdiction is concurrent with the Federal jurisdiction.

In the Case of United States V. Winans, (198 U.S. 371) the court announced the doctrine that where the right to fish is necessary to the Indian’s subsistence, such right remained to them unless granted away, and the reservation to fish in treaties entered into by the United States with the Indians is not necessary to preserve the right on lands reserved or retained in Indian country.”

However, the Attorney General in 1930-1932 had a different opinion the right of Indians to fish on the Siletz River.

It is my opinion that the rights of Indians who have severed their tribal relations and who are still wards of the United States to take fish within the Siletz Indian Reservation are controlled by Federal laws and that the state has no jurisdiction over such Indians over such matters. (Carl C. Donaugh US Dist. Attor. Brief 295, Corresp. of Paul T. Jackson, Superintendent)

In his correspondence Jackson also wrote, the act of Congress of October 14, 1848 (Oregon Act of 1848)… stated,

“From and after the passage of this act all that part of the territory of the United States which lies west of north latitude, known as the Territory of Oregon, shall be organized into and constitute a temporary government, by the name of the Territory of Oregon; provided, that nothing in this act contained shall be  construed to impair the rights of person or property now pertaining to the Indians in  said territory, so long as such rights remain unextinguished by treaty between the United States and such Indians, or to affect the authority of the Government of the United States, to make any regulations respecting such Indians, their lands, property, or other rights, by treaty, law or otherwise, which it would have been competent to the Government to make if this act had never passed; and provided also, that the title of the land, not exceeding six hundred and forty acres…”

In 1938 I.H. Van Winkle (Attorney General) stated the problem,

“In the vicinity of Siletz there is a diminished reservation with some land retained by the tribe and some sold to the public. This would create a checkerboard reservation of Indian and whites living side-by-side. Yet, “It further appears that Indians in this area are taking salmon and other fishes by means of spears, gaffs, gillnets, setnets, chickenwire traps, willow and wand weirs or any other manner in which they may see fit, in a portion of the Siletz river many miles above the commercial deadline established by statute for the regulation of salmon fishing in that area, and where the taking of salmon or other fishes commercially by citizens and residents is prohibited by statute.”

At this point the state had a problem to decide whether the Indians, who are citizens of the state in 1938 (all Indians were made US citizens in 1924 by Congressional act), possess any right to continue fishing the state rivers, rights not held by other Americans. Up to 1932, the tribes were allowed to fish in their unusual and accustomed areas even in the west side of the state because no treaties had stripped those rights. The seven ratified treaties of western Oregon do not mention hunting or fishing rights at all, so under US law, if the tribes did not lose their rights through treaty, they retained the rights. This is not the case for the eastern Oregon tribes along the Columbia River, their treaties state specifically that their rights to fish, hunt and gather are guaranteed in their usual and accustomed places. However, once Indians became citizens, the state then questioned whether their citizenship meant that they had to abide by all state laws.

Van Winkle writes further to reference the state laws and origin of the Coast Reservation, which is stated as contained within the unratified treaty of August 11, 1855, which they could find no record of. (This is a supposition that I would argue with, as the reservation appears to have been created by executive order independent of the Coast Treaty, which was never ratified, but its been the common opinion of other scholars that the Coast reservation was created because of the Coast treaty, even though it was never ratified. )

Van Winkle continued to the general opinion that Indians who were still wards of the federal government and enrolled with their tribe, are not subject to state laws, which Indians who had left the reservation and who were no long wards of the federal government would be subject to state laws.

Van Winkle’s discussion applied specifically to the Siletz River, but can be broadly applied to all rivers in the vicinity, including the fishery at Salmon river.

Paul Lafferty Case

Back in 1931, Paul Lafferty wrote the government to know what his rights were,

Dear Sir, I am writing to you in regards to our rights on hunting and fishing & also trapping. Some of the boys asked me to write you and find out if we haven’t still an old treaty right that the older Indians reserved. The[y] Hunt and Fish on the Salmon and Siletz rivers and don’t seem to be bothered. We are the same as we still have land under trust of the U.S. Government and under same ruling and agent as Siletz Indian Reservation the Salmon River Indians or Otis Ore. are same as we are the hunt & fish.  So we want to know if we can have our privilege of hunting and fishing as we the Indian of Grand Ronde Ore are not killing deer or fishing Salmon & Trout to sell or peddle like the white people. We are lucky to kill what we want to eat and get for our familys [sic]. We halfto [sic] do something to live as there are no work and most of the boys cant buy license. So they have asked to know of you about this matter. So kindly let us know by return mail please give us full detail on this matter according to our right and law of the U.S. We will be very thankful to you for you to help us out on this matter. I can come down to Chemawa and bring 1 or two of the older Indians to see you in person on this matter if you write me and let me know so. So I hope to hear by return mail. Your and oblige, Paul Lafferty, Grand Ronde, Oregon

The answer to Paul Lafferty was from Jas. T. Ryan, Acting Superintendent,

Considerable times has been devoted to the search of treaties…we have been unable to find any mention in any treaties affecting either the Grand Ronde of Siletz Indians….There is no doubt , according to statements of older Indians, that they believed that this question of freedom of hunting and fishing at all times was a part of the treaty that they entered into, but it is evident that the makers of the treaties failed to incorporate this guarantee in the various treaties.

It may be that the older Indians knew that some of the eastern Oregon treaties granted fishing rights. It may be also that there was intermarriage between members of the eastern and western Oregon tribes and it then is true that they enjoyed treaty rights to fish. Indian Agents  previous to the 20th century, fully controlled  the Indians’ rights and they developed and allowed fishing on the reservations at the major waterways. This changed when reservations lost land due to congressional acts, and many of the original fishing areas became subject to state laws.

Logan family rights

In another letter sequence, members of the Logan family at Otis, Oregon, just west of Grand Ronde, had fishing rights.

“The allotment of Louisa Logan is trust lands and under the provisions of this circular (2/3/1932) you are permitted to hunt and fish within the boundaries of the allotment.” (Chas. E. Larsen, Clerk, July 11, 1932)

Then in 1950 Mrs. Agnes Logan Flanary, daughter of James Logan requests the right to allot direct descendants a fishing license on the Salmon River under her allotment right. The government granted this right the next day. (Agnes Flanery, Oct 24, 1950, Box 222, Otis Oregon)

Henry Petite

In another situation, Henry Petite was arrested for hunting and killing deer on the Grand Ronde Reservation. John Wischeno (Wacheno) Chief of the Clackamas Indians writes about this case to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to seek an answer to whether the Indians have rights to hunt on the reservations. The answer from the federal government confirms that Indians on the reservation have to right to hunt outside of state laws on the reservations.  (John Wischeno November 13th 1931, Grand Ronde, OR)

Finally, many tribal members at Grand Ronde and Siletz would visit their former lands under a pass granted by the Indian agents (see the Grand Ronde Passbook at OHS). They would travel off the reservation for up to several months while they visited old fishing or hunting areas. In the 1870’s, there was a recorded longhouse at Willamette Falls, likely built by Oregon City John (Apperson) and his family, probably so they would have a place to stay while they fished for salmon and dried it.


Its very clear that the question of whether Indians at Grand Ronde and Siletz had the right to hunt and fish on the reservation was affirmed. The Indians had to be tribal members and their lands they hunted and fished on had to be Federal trust lands. Their rights were recognized by the federal government and the states up to the 1950’s. Instances where there were arrests or fines  for hunting and fishing were either made off the reservation, or allotment lands, or were made erroneously. State officials did not know the federal laws regarding the tribes very well and even federal officials did not know the answers without a significant amount of research.  Few people were directly aware where the reservation and allotted lands ended and the state lands began at the area was checker boarded with Indian (federal) and white owned lands.

In 1954 the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations were terminated. The termination bill (PL 588) did not address hunting or fishing rights. In the 1960’s until the 1980’s a series of legal conflicts over Tribal fishing rights erupted in Oregon and Washington, collectively called the Fishing Wars. The tribes believed they still possessed fishing rights, because even if they were terminated tribes, the termination acts did not address hunting or fishing rights. The Boldt (1974) and Belloni (1969) decisions gave the tribes the right to take fish in their usual and accustomed ways and to take half the catch in Washington State.

Yet in western Oregon, when the tribes began activating for restoration in the 1970’s, the sport fishing lobby objected stating that the restoration of Siletz would “destroy fishing”. Both Grand Ronde (1983) and Siletz (1977) were restored but both tribes had to give up hunting and fishing rights specifically before the politicians would introduce their bills for restoration to Congress.  Ironically treaties and the loss of the reservations did not eliminate fishing or hunting, only restoration did. Today we can look back and clearly see that the tribes have not destroyed fishing or hunting even after they have gotten agreements with the state to undertake ceremonial hunts nearly year-round. The most egregious impacts on fishing have come from damming rivers and commercial over-fishing of ocean environments. While there are likely more deer today than anytime in the past due to underhunting and the fact that that deer have few natural predators, besides humans, the rest, wolves, cougars have been hunted to extinction.

Its also clear that from the beginnings of the reservation system in Oregon that hunting and fishing was a necessity to feed the people. The federal government did not feed the Indians or supply them appropriately and as such they created an environment and a culture where these federal wards had to fend for themselves and feed themselves off their traditional talents for hunting and fishing, and gathering in the Coast ranges and in rivers on the coast. The state of Oregon did not have most of these Indians under their jurisdiction until the 1950’s, after termination, and as such did not know the history of the tribes on the reservations. In fact most people in the state today have little to no knowledge of tribal histories of the 19th or 20th centuries. This lack of knowledge likely contributed to situations where many Indians were held to rigid state laws when in reality they had no choice, other than starvation.

Many of the Letters in the case studies are from the Oregon Department of Fishing and Hunting at the  Oregon State Archives.


2 thoughts on “Indian Fishing Rights on the Grand Ronde-Siletz Indian Agency

  1. Hmm. Interesting. I recall seeing stories that while the Coos Bay & Lower Umpqua people were at Yachats, they fished for Coho and Steelhead in the Yachats River and nearby Big Creek, as well as gatheirng mussels off the rocks. Then back at Coos Bay in the 1880s there was an article of a complaint in the newspaper of Indians hunting ducks in the south dune lakes ‘out of season’. Some families were still fishing the old way in North Fork Siuslaw (with basket traps) into the early 20th century as Marge Drew Severy remembered learning to make traps from her father, Frank Drew.

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