January 5, 2004
As we embark on the year 2004, it seems worthwhile to evaluate the status of the treaties that spell out the legal relationship that exists between tribal and non-tribal governments here. It’s been 150 years since the first Washington Territorial Governor, Isaac Stevens, set foot here. From some counts, it has been seven generations since he established treaties, acting on behalf of the United States.
The treaties were, in fact, a federal prerequisite to the creation of Washington. No treaties, no state. No treaties, no landowners. No houses, no industries, no highways, no anything. And, whether you’re aware of it or not, that legal relationship still exists.
You know the basics of the history. Indians occupied the land, and had done so for thousands of years. Non-Indians wanted it. So, they struck the treaties, moved us out of the way and set up shop. The thing is, the treaties had conditions. By definition, treaties are government-to-government contracts between sovereign nations, constitutionally defined as the “law of the land.”
The seven generations I mentioned is very meaningful to us. That’s the amount of time we’re supposed to take into account when we make decisions. How will the things we do today affect our descendants seven generations from now?
So just what is the status of Indian people today, and how did the decision to enter into treaties affect us? In some ways, that is a hard question to answer.
As is the case across the country, Indian people here have a shorter life expectancy than other citizens (about six years on the average). Our teens are 10 times more likely to commit suicide and 10 times less likely to complete their education. Our unemployment rates are typically five to 10 times higher than they are for other citizens.
If you figure it’s okay for Indians to suffer because they don’t contribute to that same contemporary society, you are wrong. The fact is that the tribes make a major contribution to this state. Just in terms of the economy, we contribute well over a billion dollars to the economy every year, and we see little of it in return.
So, what is the status of our treaties?
Casual observers might say they’re not worth the paper they were written on – that neither the U.S. nor the state have kept their word to the tribes. I can’t say they’re wrong. But I can say that I hold the spirit of my forefathers sacred, and that they showed great wisdom in reserving natural resource and other sovereign rights for their descendants. I can say that I will continue to fight for these same rights for as long as I live, because I want the decisions I make and the actions I take today to benefit all of our descendants in the seven generations to come.
Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
For more information, contact: Steve Robinson or Tony Meyer (360) 438-1180