Courtesy Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (left), Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission
Lorraine Loomis, left, and Kathryn Brigham

Two Women Warriors Who Fight for Pacific Northwest Salmon

Terri Hansen

Salmon distinctively stand for the Pacific Northwest. And two tribal women in the Northwest stand for the salmon: Kathryn Brigham and Lorraine Loomis.

The Columbia Basin tribes in eastern Washington and Oregon, and Idaho have fished their region’s waterways for untold generations through great challenges: the arrival of non-Natives. A steep salmon decline in the late 1800s. Treaties. Removal to reservations. The most sorrowful had to be the drowning of the Celilo Falls fishery behind the Dalles Dam in 1957.

Kathryn Brigham (Umatilla), a descendant of Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla tribal fishers, was born in 1946 and raised in the tribal salmon culture. When she married, it was to a former Celilo tribal fisherman. As a young woman she joined her grandfather, the respected tribal elder Sam Kash Kash, at their fisheries’ meetings. She learned that the 1855 treaties guaranteed the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and the Nez Perce Tribe their rights to fish both on their reservations and at all their usual and accustomed fishing places.

Kathryn Brigham, left, fishing from her family fishing scaffolds at Cascade Locks, and right, in full regalia. (Photo: Courtesy Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission)

But Oregon and Washington governments ignored those treaty fishing rights, eventually arresting treaty tribal fishermen for exercising them. Court cases in the 1960s and ’70s culminated with the 1969 Belloni Decision and the 1974 Boldt Decision, which upheld treaty tribal fishing rights and allowed the tribes 50 percent of the harvest, making them co-managers of the resource. In 1977 Brigham became a founding commissioner of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), created by the four Columbia Basin treaty tribes to ensure that issues involving treaty fishing rights were resolved in a way that guaranteed the continuation and restoration of tribal fisheries into perpetuity.

“She was the first woman to take a leadership role in fisheries, and she has paved a leadership role for the women behind her,” said Paul Lumley, CRITFC’s executive director.

“Lorraine Loomis can remember when we were the only two women in the room,” Brigham told ICTMN. Loomis (Swinomish), took over as chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC) in western Washington after the late Billy Frank Jr., who served as NWIFC chairman for 34 years, died on May 5, 2014.

Lorraine Loomis (Courtesy Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission)

The NWIFC was created in 1975 after the conflicts known as the Fish Wars in the western Washington region, akin to the state harassment suffered by the fishing Natives in the Columbia Basin region, led to the Boldt Decision that affirmed the treaty rights of 20 tribes to fish in their usual and accustomed places, as well as on reservation. The NWIFC supports the treaty tribes in co-managing the region’s natural resources with the State of Washington, and provides a forum for tribes to address shared natural resource management concerns and allows the tribes to speak with a unified voice.

RELATED: The Fire That Was Billy Frank Jr.; Indian Country’s Greatest Defender

Loomis has taken on an issue that Frank had long been fighting for, that of improving Washington’s water quality by toughening up Washington’s fish consumption standards to accurately reflect the amount of fish consumers actually eat rather than a standard skewed to fit a political agenda.

Oregon’s clean water is a major accomplishment of Brigham’s that resulted from a water quality study CRITFC conducted in 1994 to protect Columbia Basin fish and the tribal families who ate the fish from contaminants. Brigham worked tirelessly with the State of Oregon, Lumley said, resulting in Oregon adopting water quality standards that are far more protective than any state in the nation.

“We’re now forcing Washington and Idaho to do the same thing,” Lumley said, adding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “We’ve had very difficult conversations with the EPA. Now they’ve come around and it’s to the point to where the EPA may need to promulgate water quality standards for Washington.”

Related: EPA to Develop Federal Clean Water Standards for Washington, if State Won’t

Loomis, 72, has been Swinomish tribal fisheries manager since 1975, and she has extensive experience in fisheries management throughout the region.

Brigham has served three times as CRITFC’s chair, most recently in 2015. But whether at the helm, or working from the sidelines, she has been at the forefront of key challenges, and has led the tribes in a team effort, Lumley said.

Both Brigham and Loomis have been heavily involved in several major fishing agreements, including the international Pacific Salmon Treaty. Loomis serves on the Fraser River Panel of the Pacific Salmon Commission that manages sockeye and pink salmon under the U.S./Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty.

When fish stocks were listed under the endangered species act in the mid-1990s and their tribal fishery came under attack Brigham pushed back hard at federal agencies who said the tribes needed to stop fishing. “She said it was completely unfair to attack the tribal fishery when there were so many other obstacles to salmon survival that were much bigger than the tribal harvest,” Lumley said.

Brigham forced the federal agencies to look at the environmental conditions of the salmon’s entire lifecycle, from salmon smolts to spawning adults. “All these fish coming back now? That’s a lot of Kat’s work,” Lumley said.

Fish habitat is also of great concern to Loomis.

“It is the amount and quality of salmon habitat—more than any other factor—that determines the health of the salmon resource,” she wrote in an editorial for the regional news site Crosscut.

“I think the biggest accomplishment of both commissions is bringing us together to work on natural resources,” Loomis told ICTMN.

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