By Jennifer Grimes
Triplicate staff writer
Tolowa Tribe members today find themselves embroiled in a fishing controversy they say they never intended to ignite.
"It just really got blown up in our faces and totally out of proportion," said tribal council member Loren Bommelyn.
The controversy began when, in an attempt to regulate and protect clam beds near the mouth of the Smith River, the Smith River Rancheria Council drafted a hunting and fishing ordinance. That draft law seemed to indicate an interest in netting salmon in the river, a practice that currently is not allowed.
Before long, an army of more than 40 different fishing groups from across the nation mad about the tribal proposal began busily gathering legal tools for a fight.
Bommelyn now says two unfortunate mistakes brought the backlash by non-native sport fishermen.
"Our goal was regulation of our clam beds," Bommelyn said.
First, Bommelyn said, to protect the clam bed from over use and poaching, the tribal council set on the task of making rules in a formal ordinance.
The council hired a lawyer to write the law. Bommelyn said the lawyer decided to include every possible hunting, fishing and gathering issue into the ordinance for the council to look at and mull over.
Unfortunately, said Bommelyn, the council had not even seen the lawyer's creation before it was mistakenly made available to the public.
Instead of publishing an announcement solely in the rancheria's newsletter, it was put in the Daily Triplicate and copies of the ordinance were offered to the general public before the tribal council had seen it, Bommelyn said.
"It was only to be put in the tribal newsletter, not the Triplicate. So, here were all these people getting copies of it and reading about it in the Triplicate before it had even been discussed or mulled over," Bommelyn said.
After getting a look at the lawyer's suggested 26-page ordinance, the council realized it was too broad.
Hunting elk and deer and gill netting salmon and trout were not issues the tribe was ready to address, according to Bommelyn.
The council has since hired a different attorney.
In the meantime, fishermen and conservationists from all over the United States have organized to protest the proposed ordinance.
An alliance of more than 40 groups called the Northern California Council of the Fly Fishing Federation has even threatened a lawsuit if the tribe continues to pursue the ordinance and gill netting.
"It's pretty ridiculous," Bommelyn said.
"We don't even know if it's legal for us to do that. Just because the Yuroks can do it doesn't mean we can. On the Smith River Rancheria we're under a different legal history than they are," he said.
Smith River Rancheria was established by the federal government in the mid 1800's. Then in 1868, it was annulled.
Years later, allotments were then granted to separate Tolowa families throughout the Smith River basin area and eventually, a rancheria was re-established.
In 1960, however, United States President Dwight Eisenhower terminated both the Smith River and Elk Valley Rancherias and the Tolowa were told they are not a recognized tribe.
The tribe and rancheria were not again recognized until 1983, when a band of activists, including Bommelyn, sued the federal government and won.
The Yurok reservation in Klamath was never annulled or terminated.
Rancherias were originally set up throughout California to give homeless natives a place to carry on their lifestyle by hunting and gathering and living off the land.
When the Smith River Rancheria re-formed in 1983, subsistence living took on a different definition, said Bommelyn.
"Life is different today than it was 100 years ago. It's not about just living off the land anymore. We have to make a truck payment and pay rent and taxes," he said.
Though the tribal council does own and operate the Lucky Seven Casino, profits and dividends are not paid out to the individual members for income.
"It goes toward building up our government structure and building our community center, the Head Start building, we have a clinic to run and we acquire some land for the future," said Bommelyn.
There are 900 people registered as members of the rancheria. It is a community to keep running, fed and healthy, he added.
But while Bommelyn says the tribe has no plans at this time to seek fishing rights on the Smith, the fact that no tribal member has completely discounted the idea coupled with recent refusals to share language of the new draft ordinance, continue to fuel the fires of suspicion among sport anglers.
The Smith River Rancheria has reportedly revised the draft ordinance, but the Daily Triplicate was told by a rancheria representative that the new version is not for "public consumption."
The tribal council will continue to revise and consider the hunting and fishing ordinance. It will also continue to research its rights as a rancheria, Bommelyn said.
Representatives of the rancheria said it won't compromise its rights, nor will it purposely abuse them.