Oak Harbor man drives initiative against tribal fishing rights

Yet another John Q. is taking the proverbial bull by the horns, this time in the form of a citizen’s initiative seeking to disarm the decades- old Judge Boldt decision on tribal fishing rights.

Yet another John Q. is taking the proverbial bull by the horns, this time in the form of a citizen’s initiative seeking to disarm the decades- old Judge Boldt decision on tribal fishing rights.

Inspired by the recent successes of initiative guru Tim Eyman, Oak Harbor resident Omer Lupien is driving a state ballot initiative that would add a section to Washington state law essentially repealing any special rights granted to state tribes. The meat of the measure reads: “Any right, activity or privilege afforded the tribes of Washington state shall be shared equally and in common with the citizens of Washington state.”

Lupien, a lifelong hunter, hiker and sometime commercial fisherman, said Wednesday that the wording of the initiative is a deliberate reversal of the controversial Judge Boldt decision of 1973, which split state fishing rights equally between native and non-tribal fishermen. Rather than an attack on Indians per se, Lupien argues that such a move merely seeks to level the playing field after years of federal mismanagement.

The Bolt decision was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court, which ruled against the State of Washington whose losing arguments were made by then-Attorney General Slade Gorton.

“With all the things that are happening within the state, I think something needs to be done to correct the direction our state is heading politically,” Lupien explained. “What the government has done is created a class of super-citizens that are immune from our law.

“It’s gotten to the point now where they’re able to make huge sums of money because they’ve been provided monopolies in the business arena,” he added. “Because of a liberal mentality, we are trying to pay these people back. But not only is that not possible, it’s not right.”

For anyone steeped in the history of Northwest politics, this is a well-known argument. It presents one side of a vigorously and sometimes violently contested issue grounded in economics and complicated by race. Lupien said he knows older fishermen who have spent their lives battling the effects of the Boldt decision, and that this has had a big influence on his own beliefs. Until now, however, no one has ever succeeded in putting the issue on the ballot, and letting voters decide.

“The inspiration was watching the Tim Eyman deal,” Lupien said, referring to the Mukilteo businessman whose most recent initiative, I-747, capped annual property tax collection at 1 percent. “He was on the same track,” he added. “The government has become a runaway train.”

Right now, Lupien is ramping up for a big push on the September 2003 general election. He tried to hit this year’s deadline for filing, but realized too late that he couldn’t get the requisite 200,000 signatures by July 5. A bigger campaign was needed, he said, with a more comprehensive strategy that could embrace potential supporters throughout the state. Resources also became an issue.

“I damn near went broke doing this out of my pocket,” he said. “Right now, I’m spending all my time working and trying to get back on my feet.”

Lupien said he now understands that in order to spearhead a strong ballot initiative, he’s going to have to get help. He doesn’t like to ask for money, he said, having been imbued throughout his life with a strong work ethic and pride of independence. Big-time politics, however, is a different matter.

“From now on, it’s hitting people up for money,” he said. That, and seeking support from various sportsman organizations around the region. He wants his petitions placed in key areas — sporting goods stores and such — as well as circulated by either partisan volunteers or paid activists. Lupien is even thinking of setting up campaign booths at rod-and-reel type conventions state-wide.

After all, he feels the initiative has a good chance of traveling all the way to the Supreme Court. Whether that happens or not, Lupien’s campaign is sure to encounter resistance, from advocates of aboriginal rights as well at tribal members themselves. He realizes that not least of the criticism leveled against him will be the charge of racism, for which he says he’s ready to defend himself.

“I have absolutely nothing against Indians,” Lupien said. “I hunt with a longbow. I know there’s very few Indians who hunt that way. I’ve always respected the Indians’ way of life, but at one point everybody lived that way. It doesn’t make them special.”

He added that tribes now are merely “using their heritage as a means of making a large amount of money.”

Ultimately, Lupien argued, the issue of “special” tribal rights violates the basic tenets of the United States Constitution, whose main principle is to “prevent anarchy” by placing all people on an equal footing under the law. Over time, that principle has been “eroded” by the idea that something should be returned to the aboriginal tribes who were raped, pillaged and plundered under European conquest. (Lupien here noted that Puget Sound-based Indians were “raiding each other for slaves” long before the settlers showed up).

“I feel that all the rights and privileges that the tribes are getting are detrimental to the welfare of our nation,” Lupien said. “The further we stray from the principles of the Constitution, the quicker is going to be the downfall of our country.

“All men are equal,” he added. “That’s one of the reasons our country has been so great.”

Lupien said that by creating a class of tribal “super citizens,” the government has fostered a monopoly enterprise that enjoys a singular grasp of state resources. “Certain monopolies are necessary for the good of the people, but they’re regulated,” he said, citing as an example public utilities. Without state or federal regulation, such resources inevitably are depleted. This, in turn, has pushed the Puget Sound salmon runs to “the brink of extinction,” while fishermen in such places as Bristol Bay, Alaska — where there is no Boldt ruling — enjoy runs of fish that are growing all the time.

“The difference is management,” Lupien said. “All the rights that the tribes are now enjoying are removing our ability to manage our resources.

“They’re self-regulating,” he said of the tribes that fish commercially. “That’s like having a very small family police themselves. There’s bound to be things that are harmful to the resource. That’s why we have police.”