RAPID RIVER — Nez Perce Tribal fishermen were ready to give up their lives 25 years ago for the right to fish.
On Monday, 150 people gathered on the banks of the Rapid River and shared stories of the day many say marked the pivotal point in the tribe’s effort to protect its treaty rights.
“Today we sit here peacefully,” said tribal fisherman Elmer Crow, who led Monday’s commemoration. “Twenty-five years ago, that wasn’t the situation.”
That season, the species was facing imminent peril, decided Jerry Conley, then-director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, closing the Indian fishery.
In the midst of the tension, six Nez Perce fished anyway, earning them citations and, for some, jail time.
On that day and the weeks to follow, Fish and Game, state, county and National Guard officials surrounded the fishing grounds along the turbulent stretch of water, handing out citations and seizing fish.
“They were armed with sawed-off shotguns and grenade launchers, and snipers lined the hillside,” Crow said. “All for a handful of Nez Perces.”
In the end, 33 from the tribe ended up in front of Magistrate George R. Reinhardt at the Idaho County Courthouse. They pleaded innocent, claiming their treaty rights superseded state law.
Two years later, Reinhardt threw out all 33 cases, ruling the state failed to give tribal leaders time to negotiate a fishery closure.
“This is part of us,” Crow said. “It’s part of our heritage and spiritual being. We’re here to honor the warriors who stood their ground — men, women, children, families. They were here.”
In one of the afternoon’s most poignant moments, one child in particular was recognized for his role in the summer of 1980.
Jerrod Crow, who was 7 at the time, was issued a warning by Fish and Game Conservation Officer Bill Snow for catching a hefty salmon.
Snow, who 25 years ago was the one writing citations, came to Monday’s ceremony and took the opportunity to shake the now grown-up Jerrod Crow’s hand.
After some convincing, Snow spoke to the crowd.
“A lot of time has passed,” he said. “Some of ours have passed away, and some of yours have passed away. I’m glad we’re here in peace today.”
As for Jerrod Crow, “As I recall, Elmer wanted his son to exercise his treaty rights,” Snow said. “But I was not going to give a 7-year-old a citation. So he got a warning.”
And Snow’s nickname, “Yellow Snow,” hadn’t been forgotten either.
“That’s Chief Yellow Snow,” Snow said, laughing.
The name came about after tribal members chanted “Piss on Snow,” and a woman asked what happens when you piss on snow, he said.
Snow said he was surprised at the warm welcome he received Monday.
Later, Jerrod Crow gave Snow a fish club he’d made.
After reading a list of names of people involved in the stand-off and inviting them to take part in an honor song procession, Elmer Crow brought up a name universally disliked by the tribe.
“It’s been brought to my attention that we’ve forgotten somebody,” he said. “Is Jerry Conley in the crowd?”
A round of laughter followed.
“I’m glad we can joke about this today,” Crow said.
The tribe’s victory in the ’80s is remembered in every battle over treaty rights today, said NPTEC Chaplain Randall J. Minthorn.
Friday’s U.S. District Court decision to increase the volume of water spilled through the four Snake River dams and McNary Dam on the Columbia River to make it easier for juvenile salmon to reach the ocean is a prime example, he said.
“The victories started 25 years ago,” Minthorn said. “Now we fight in court … That’s why we’re here today, because our leaders stood up.”
“It makes my blood boil when I hear us referred to as militant or renegades for what we did,” said Sandy Holt, whose father, Jimmy Davis, was an active tribal fisherman.
“We were Nimiipuu. My father loved this place. My father was not a renegade or a militant. He was a Nimiipuu.”
Rod “Waddy” Scott, one of the most outspoken and active of the fishermen in 1980, chose not to speak publicly.
But privately he said he doesn’t know how much progress has been made in 25 years.
He spent time in jail in 1979 and 1980 for illegally catching salmon, and is going through the court system again for hunting big game out of season on tribal lands, he said.
“It’s confusing to do time for something I’ve done all my life,” Scott said. “It’s a way of life for our people, and we have to stand up for it.
“I still feel the same way I did back then — the only way to stop me from fishing is to shoot me.”
Elmer Crow echoed the sentiment.
“We knew how much ammunition (the officers) had,” he said, “and we didn’t know if we were going to be shot. But we made that decision to go to the river. We were ready to sacrifice the ultimate.”
Those who made that choice deserve recognition for what they did, Crow said.
“Thinking back, it’s sad people had to go through that,” said then-NPTEC chairman Wilfred “Scotty” Scott. “But I am proud that my people had the will and determination to say, ‘No, we’re not going to lay down and let you take our rights.’ ”