The Diversity Resource Center and Native American Student Organization at University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) hosted a free screening April 29 of the landmark film “As Long as the Rivers Run,” a riveting documentary of Northwest Native American peoples’ struggles during the days of the fishing wars in Washington state.
Filmmaker Carol Burns and Puyallup tribal activist Ramona Bennett attended the screening and stayed afterward to talk about their experiences back in the days when Pacific coastal tribes had to fight tooth and nail for their sovereign right to fish in a united front with other Native peoples across the country involved in a nationwide civil rights movement for tribal self-determination across the board.
Nisqually tribal member Alison Bridges appears in the film, and summed up the climate of the time by noting that young Indians were fed up with being “trapped between two cultures.” Native youth wanted no part of the “dog eat dog world” created by white men, Bridges said. “Indians have something the white man will never have: a culture they can be proud of.”
Filmed between 1968-1970, “As Long as the Rivers Run” has recently been updated from its original production release in 1971. The film consists of original 16mm footage taken by Burns, a non-Native activist who supported the local Indians’ struggles to fish back in the days when the state was doing all it could to stop them.
The film is disturbing in parts, as it shows state Fish and Wildlife wardens and sheriff’s deputies openly stealing the Indians’ nets right out of the water and sinking their canoes, beating and arresting those who tried to protect their property. A particularly upsetting scene shows Nisqually tribal member Maiselle Bridges being dragged through the mud while she holds on to the fishing net officers were taking from her. Another harrowing scene shows Nisqually tribal member Bill Frank, Jr., being yanked from his canoe and tackled by at least a half-dozen officers.
Valerie Frank, a young and outspoken Nisqually activist featured in the film, suffered the cruelest blow of all - her body was found at the bottom of the river near her home during the height of the fish wars. According to Burns the young woman was prone to seizures and may have drowned. Another possibility was that she died from foul play. In either case, she remains “a martyr of the fishing rights movement,” Burns said.
This historical period in Washington state history often witnessed violence on the waters and massive demonstrations on the steps of the state capital in Olympia. As seen in the film, hundreds of Indian families and their supporters camped out for days in Olympia to demand the state government respect their right to fish in the rivers that sustained the tribes through the ages. Ultimately, Federal Judge George Boldt would issue his landmark “Boldt Decision” reaffirming the rights of Washington’s Indian tribes to fish in “usual and accustomed places” in accordance with the treaties such as the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854.
Winning the Boldt Decision didn’t come easily, though. The Puyallup Tribe had to set up armed encampments just outside Tacoma to protect their fishermen and protest industrial polluters that poisoned the river with pesticides, fertilizers and huge amounts of silt that choked off the salmon and steelhead. The film shows the day law enforcement moved in, which resulted in many arrests and the dramatic burning of the trestle over the Puyallup River. “We were out of time,” Ramona Bennett said after the film. “It was serious. If we didn’t assert ourselves the fish would perish and we’d be dead as a people.”
The film also includes footage of the historic seizure of Alcatraz Island by many tribes and how that action tied in with the American Indian movement that reached from coast to coast. Covered by media around the world, the Alcatraz occupation opened the eyes of people internationally to the fact that the survival of Indians was at stake.
Bennett, who once faced up to 35 years in prison for her involvement in the struggle, noted that Burns, part of the activist hippie culture of the time, put herself in extreme danger while filming. She was often in the crosshairs of law enforcement who saw her camera as a threat. “What happened to us happened to Carol,” Bennett said. “She had evidence in the can. She was their special target.”
In closing the screening event UWT Diversity Resource Center Coordinator Robert Guerrero, dressed in a traditional Tlingit button blanket and a cedar weaved headpiece in honor of his Tlingit Tribe of Juneau, Alaska, and Blackfoot Tribe of Browning, Mont., and UWT Assistant Chancellor for Equity and Diversity Dr. Sharon Parker, a Tslagi/Susquehama tribal member, thanked Bennett and Burns by presenting them with a small gift.
DVDs of “As Long as the Rivers Run” are available for $20 by emailing Burns at email@example.com.