The Skagit delta farming system’s intricate rotation of some 80 vegetable and seed crops has been 150 years in the making. Dikes to keep the low-lying farmland dry and tide gates to prevent saltwater incursion into croplands are valuable to farmers, but not so much to Natives trying to revive salmon runs on the third largest American river on the contiguous West Coast.
The Swinomish Tribe’s priority is fish, not farms. And a century and a half of treaty law has put in their hands considerable power to press their case. In 1855, territorial Governor Isaac Stevens negotiated with western Washington tribes, trying to coax them into giving up millions of acres of land and retreat to reservations with prescribed boundaries. The Treaty of Point Elliott, signed by tribal leaders at a place later known as Mukilteo, included a guarantee of perpetual fishing rights. The treaty included this language: “The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians in common with all other citizens of the Territory, and of erecting temporary houses for the purpose of curing them, together with the privileges of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses on open and unclaimed lands.”