The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC) is a natural resources management support service organization for 20 treaty Indian tribes in western Washington. Headquartered in Olympia, the NWIFC employs approximately 65 people with satellite offices in Burlington and Forks.
NWIFC member tribes are: Lummi, Nooksack, Swinomish, Upper Skagit, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Tulalip, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Nisqually, Squaxin Island, Skokomish, Suquamish, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Lower Elwha Klallam, Makah, Quileute, Quinault, and Hoh.
The NWIFC was created following the 1974 U.S. v. Washington ruling (Boldt Decision) that re-affirmed the tribes’ treaty-reserved fishing rights. The ruling established them as natural resources co-managers with the State of Washington with an equal share of the harvestable number of salmon returning annually.
The commission is composed of representatives from each member tribe who elect a chair, vice chair and treasurer. Commissioners provide direction to the NWIFC executive director, who in turn implements that direction.
The role of the NWIFC is to assist member tribes in their role as natural resources co-managers. The commission provides direct services to tribes in areas such as biometrics, fish health and salmon management to achieve an economy of scale that makes more efficient use of limited federal funding. The NWIFC also provides a forum for tribes to address shared natural resources management issues and enables the tribes to speak with a unified voice in Washington, D.C.
Indian tribes have always inhabited the watersheds of western Washington, their cultures based on harvesting fish, wildlife, and other natural resources in the region. In the mid-1850s, when the United States government wanted to make Washington a state, a series of treaties were negotiated with tribes in the region. Through the treaties, the tribes gave up most of their land, but also reserved certain rights to protect their way of life:
“The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians, in common with all citizens of the United States; and of erecting temporary houses for the purposes of curing; together with the privilege of hunting on open and unclaimed lands. Provided, however, that they shall not take shell-fish from any beds staked or cultivated by citizens.”
– Treaty of Point No Point, January 26, 1855
The promises of the treaties were quickly broken in the decades that followed, however, as the tribes were systematically denied their treaty-protected rights by the State of Washington. The struggle to obtain recognition of those rights climaxed in the “Fish Wars” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when tribal members were arrested and jailed for fishing in defiance of state law.
More recent federal court rulings upholding treaty-reserved shellfish harvest rights have further expanded the role and responsibilities of the tribes as natural resource managers. Those rulings, combined with the interconnectedness of all natural resources, mean that tribal participation is important in all aspects of natural resources management in the region.
The tribal commitment to natural resources management is evident in the preamble to the NWIFC Constitution:
“We, the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, recognize that our fisheries are a basic and important natural resource and of vital concern to the Indians of this state, and that the conservation of this natural resource is dependent upon effective and progressive management. We further believe that by unity of action, we can best accomplish these things, not only for the benefit of our own people but for all of the people of the Pacific Northwest.”