Salmon scam

On June 17, 1982, federal law enforcement officers arrested David Sohappy, a Yakama Indian, at his home at Cooks Landing, Washington, in the Columbia River Gorge. The arrest culminated an undercover operation by the National Marine Fisheries Service that targeted Sohappy for illegally catching and selling salmon. It was the beginning of a case that came to be known as “Salmon Scam.”

Eventually, the arrests numbered 75. An affidavit filed in federal court in Seattle alleged that as much as 53 tons of salmon, steelhead and sturgeon were taken illegally by the defendants over a 14-month period. A tribal court acquitted Sohappy, but he, his son, David Sohappy, Jr., and Bruce Jim of Warm Springs, Oregon, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Warms Springs Reservation, were convicted in federal court and sentenced to five years in prison in 1983 for various violations of the Lacy Act, which makes violations of state and tribal game laws a federal offense.

Technically, Sohappy, the primary focus of the investigation that led to the arrests, was convicted for selling 178 fish for $4,675. He was sentenced to five years’ probation for selling an additional 139 fish. It was not his first arrest for illegal fishing in the Columbia — which he did not consider illegal. His family long had been involved in legal disputes over fishing rights. A relative, Richard Sohappy, was the primary plaintiff in the landmark 1969 Indian fishing rights case known as U.S. v Oregon, in which U.S. District Judge Robert Belloni of Portland ruled that Indians were entitled to a “fair share” of the harvestable surplus of fish in the Columbia, based on language in the treaties of 1855. In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt defined the “fair share” doctrine to mean half the harvestable surplus.

In an interview filed among oral histories in the collection of the Center for Columbia River History at the Oregon Historical Society, Sohappy commented that the provision in the 1855 treaties that reserves the Indians’ right to fish “in common with citizens of the Territory” meant other Indian tribes that fished in the Columbia at the time the treaties were signed, not non-Indians:

. . . the four tribes of Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and the Yakamas — not with the multi-nationals or the non-Indians. That's the way they understood it: in common with each other from the four tribes, not the whites. And they said the law is supposed to be interpreted the way the Indians understood it.

In April 1984, when he was free while his five-year sentence was on appeal, Sohappy laughed about the charges against him and his conviction. He told writer Robin Cody for a story in Northwest magazine:

Poaching, they got me for. [but] For it to be poaching, the fish have to belong to somebody. If the king and queen of England own the land and a man sneaks in and kills an animal, that’s poaching. That’s where the word comes from.

Sohappy, who always believed his fishing was protected by the treaty signed at Walla Walla in 1855, died in a Hood River, Oregon, nursing home in May 1991 at the age of 65.

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