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“If laws are for elders, stories are for children. And the stories that children tell are never general and abstract. They ground us in, or guide us toward, what is really important.”

In his book Law’s Indigenous Ethics, Anishinaabe jurist John Borrows cites elder Basil Johnson: “[Through stories] Our ancestors intended to prepare the minds of their children to look for and see relationships between plants, weathers [sic], seasons, insects, birds, animals, and fish and to make stories out of what they had perceived…” And he concludes: “Instead of laws that are guidelines, our ancestors made up stories to guide us along on the right course” (5). And the story with which Borrows opens his book, just like Beth Piatote’s story that I’ll be reading here, is about a young girl, living through an environmental crisis (“Fewer birds returned from the southlands. Fish were disappearing from the rivers, and the waters were rife with disease” (6)), but with loving parents who want to teach her about the goodness of the world.

This essay is about rights, specifically about water rights, or fishing rights, and it is an invitation to bring fiction into scholarly work for the sake of telling a more robust story. As Borrows argues: “[A]mbiguity is a legal reality in all rights language. Rights are necessarily expressed in general terms to provide wide-ranging protections against state intrusions. Their broad framing has not prevented us from giving them meaning in specific cases… If anything, their very breadth elevates our expectations. The generalized nature of rights heightens the public demand we place on these concepts” (30). Literature can give us the specificity that the rights discourse lacks.

Some will criticize thinking of water in terms of rights as thinking within a settler-colonial framework. It does not challenge the state’s authority over the land and the water, and it commodifies the water itself. As Native American Studies scholar Joanne Barker (Lenape) writes, “There is a real problem in framing the water crisis through rights-based discourses. This framework confines our understanding to binary relations, both in terms of what the struggle is and what reform is desired. … Rights, while appealing to extra-state or global humanitarian ideals, are articulated through legal ideologies and discourses that have been developed to serve imperialists” (18). I am hoping that the story I tell in this essay succeeds in responding to this critique.

The Fish Wars

The fish wars occurred all along the Klamath and Trinity Rivers. Yurok elders talk about them as a kind of ceremony, because each person played a critical role and worked together without any formal rehearsal. Part of thinking of the fish wars as ceremony has to do with the obligation to engage with water according to protocol, to ensure mutual survival.

According to Yurok elder Walt Lara, Sr., the fish wars started around 1945, when two Yuroks were arrested for fishing at Snake Rock. From the moment of that first arrest in 1945, over a span of more than 30 years, until the most violent battles on the river occurred in 1978, the State of California continuously harassed the Yuroks for fishing. Yurok elders compare these incidents to the violence that occurred during the Gold Rush and consider them as a continuation of genocide. Here is how Yurok elder Robley Schwenk remembers it:

My most prevalent memory of the fish wars was the federal officers coming down the river in a boat. They were whooping and hollering, slapping their hands on their mouths, like stereotypical ‘Indians.’ This behavior was a norm for them and a way to intimidate or belittle us. […] Each time, they would harass us and tell us that we needed to stay off the river. We would remind them that we had the right to fish. In one interaction, [an] officer pulled a pistol on me and said, ‘I told you that you’re not allowed to fish here anymore.’ At that moment I thought that I might be killed in the next few minutes. It’s hard to describe how I felt. It should be remembered that we [Yurok people] didn’t have weapons during the fish wars. Only the “feds” had weapons (220).  

Such incidents occurred regularly, and in 1978, the community started to retaliate. But the elders were opposed to violence on the river, out of respect for it. The community was convinced and took another route: tribal reorganization and recognition.

I think that reading Yurok elders’ memories of the fish wars is effective—the elders tell stories rather than recite laws, “to guide us along on the right course,” just like Borrows’ ancestors have done (5). But reading Beth Piatote, I am convinced that the work of fiction carries potential missing from oral history. The shift from law to stories is important for another reason: if laws are for elders, stories are for children. And the stories that children tell are never general and abstract. They ground us in, or guide us toward, what is really important. In an interview about her acclaimed short-story collection, the Beadworkers, Piatote explains: “I have always been interested in the fish wars of the Pacific Northwest. And one of the things that I’ve been interested in, in all of my work, is the way that indigenous families are put on the front lines of wars. I asked myself, what would I do as a parent? What kinds of conversations would parents have? I could have asked these kinds of questions as an academic. But when you’re in it, you don’t know how things will unfold, and that’s part of why writing about it historically didn’t seem as interesting to me.”

The Fish Wars, Revisited

Piatote’s story “The Fish Wars” opens and ends with a fight. At the beginning of the story, the narrator, 11-year-old Trudy, is lying in bed, listening to her parents quarrel, and wondering if they will divorce. A reader who doesn’t know about the fish wars would get a hint of when the story takes place when Trudy and her friends secretly listen to a record of Dick Gregory’s comedy and to a Beach Boys song on the radio, and when Trudy finds her mother on the couch reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. The location is revealed when Trudy mentions, in passing, the Pierce County Fair and then the Pierce County Jail. We learn about Trudy’s tribal affiliation when she mentions, at the end of the story, the Nisqually fishing weirs. That’s also when we learn how deep the meaning of fishing is to Trudy’s people: what she learns in school to call Orion’s Belt, to her and to her mother is fish traps in the sky.

Throughout the story, other kids’ parents fight as well, but they fight differently, maybe because they’re white. The white parents stomp and yell about stealing each other’s men, but Trudy’s mother’s whisper “cuts through every layer” and her father’s voice “seeps like water into a boat.” Trudy is a girl interested in French manicures and in who’s popular in school. She’s not that different than other girls her age, but she is different. Perhaps her parents aren’t fighting about infidelity but over something else altogether?

At the beginning of the story, we lie down in bed with Trudy, listening to the fight of her parents (we can’t discern their words; we do not know what the fight is about), and to her father leaving the house. Jolene, Trudy’s cousin from Alaska, who has moved into Trudy’s room when her mother went to jail, is sleeping soundly next to her; after all, it’s not Jolene’s parents who may be getting a divorce. In the morning, however, her father is back home, making breakfast, but her mother’s eyes look puffy. We learn that Trudy’s brother is going to stay home from school that day, but that Trudy and Jolene are not granted this privilege. The men are going to hang out in the shed, mending nets. The women are doing beadwork inside. In the interview mentioned above, Piatote says about the beadwork table: “You come with all of your pain and all of your suffering, you’re bearing it, but it’s not happening in that space.” Violence and pain remain in the background when you come to the beadwork table.

At school, one of the white boys, surrounded by his “pack,” tells Trudy he saw her Dad in jail, saying her father is a “drunk Indian.” Trudy attacks him. When we read the memories of Yurok elders who participated in the fish wars, we learn of violent encounters with federal agents, but Piatote wants us to know what it is like to be a middle-schooler who has to keep going to school as all this is happening on the river. For Piatote, the school is no less a frontline than the river. And Trudy’s descriptions of the war going on at school are not any less gruesome than Robley Schwenk’s descriptions of his encounters with the feds on the Klamath River:

And that’s when I snap, going at him like a whale butting a boat. I go straight for his belly, throw myself into him, and knock him to the ground. That asphalt comes to meet me fast, and I feel the impact of falling down with him. Breath gets knocked out of us both. I scramble to stay on top of him. I feel the tense muscle of his open hand crash into my nose and a pain so sharp I don’t know whether to cry or throw up. My eyes are closed and I’m throwing my hands at his face, not even sure if I’m making a fist. I hear someone yelling fight fight and a-ah, a-ah and then he tips me off of him and I land on my back while he jumps up.

The kids are sent to the principal’s office. Jolene stays with Trudy until her mother arrives to take her home. The boy’s friends are long gone, and Trudy realizes “they weren’t a pack after all.” Trudy is suspended, but she learns that, actually, her parents are not breaking up. Her father and brother were arrested for fishing, “For fishing on our river, where we have always fished.” And so “the Indians got to fight. Just like the old days.” But this fight remains in the background of the story.

Piatote shifts our attention from the wars taking place on the river to those taking place at home. In her academic work, Piatote has shown that the discourse of domestication – i.e., Chief Justice John Marshall turning Indigenous nations into “domestic dependent nations,” the discourse on domesticating the “savage Indian,” and the attacks on the Native family through boarding schools and out-adoption—was meant to support dominion over Indigenous peoples. However, she argues, the domestic can also provide a site of resistance. Piatote shows “the resilience of the tribal-national domestic by centering the intimate domestic (the Indian home and family) as the primary site of struggle against the foreign force of U.S. national domestication” (4). And as she does in her scholarship, so does Piatote do in her fiction: focusing on the domestic sphere as a site both of oppression and of resistance.

Piatote wants us to be able to imagine what it was like to be a parent on the frontlines of the fish wars. In fact, she helps us imagine what it was like to be a child on the frontlines of these wars. What we learn from Pitatote’s story is that the home or the family are not categories that are limited to what is considered “the American dream”—two parents, a boy, a girl, a pet dog, and a white picket fence. We learn that if your sister has to go to jail, you go ahead and take her daughter in, and you quit drinking; if your cousin gets in a fight at school and is sent to the principal’s office, you stick by her side; if the river and the fish are in bad shape, you go out and you fight for their well-being. Your own well-being is detached neither from your niece’s nor from the river’s.  

And this is why political theology needs children. Without them, it is too easy to forget how the domestic sphere is a site of resistance, how kinship is political. Centering children troubles the ideology of separate spheres that relies on a theological image of the heavenly family. Sleepovers and school recess are frontlines that we need to attend to in any pursuit of justice and liberation.   

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