LOMPOC, CALIF. -- The wind-blown federal prison here, located on a dry stretch of the California Coast Range, has no jobs for fishermen, so Bruce Jim -- federal prisoner No. 12851-086 -- tends the cattle. He knows how because he has owned cattle. But it was fishing, after all, that got him sent here in the first place.
In 1855, when the leaders of what is now the Warm Springs Tribe peaceably ceded most of their land on the Columbia River to the white man, they thought they had retained the right to fish its salmon-rich waters.
"The Indian will be allowed to take fish . . . at the usual fishing places," Washington Territory Gov. Isaac Stevens said that year, "and this promise will be kept by the Americans for as long as the sun shines, as long as the mountains stand and as long as the rivers run."
Bruce Jim's ancestors agreed that they had no chance against men who could make rifles and cannon. They would not behave like the poorer Snake Indians to the south, who refused to move to a reservation and made war on white men and other Indians. The Warm Springs Tribe expected the river to continue to supply their needs, both material and spiritual, in the years to come.
Early on June 17, 1982, Bruce Jim, his wife, Barbara, and five of their six children learned in the strongest possible terms that their ancestors had been wrong.
Their 2-year-old daughter, Emily, heard cars outside their trailer in Cooks Landing, Wash., about 6 a.m. Someone shouted, "Federal officers! Open up!" A man with a gun burst in.
Barbara Jim remembers the man kneeling in front of their bed with his pistol pointed at their heads. Their son, Bruce Jr., was sleeping in an infant carrier on the floor, pressed under the man's knees.
"Get off my baby! Get off my baby!" she screamed. The man, an agent with the National Marine Fisheries Service, saw his mistake and got up. The baby was unhurt. But Bruce Jim was charged with fishing out of season and selling the catch. He did not know it or expect it then, but he was going to prison.
"It is a . . . shame that people can't fish when they want to anymore," said Stephen Schroeder, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Jim in 1983. "But I don't think that anybody in 1855 realized that the population was going to grow so much, and the resource become so scarce."
The salmon's number has dropped to about one-third of the 15 million fish estimated to have filled the river annually in the 19th century, and the government has limited fishing by Indians and non-Indians to a certain number of days each year in certain seasons, based on the quality of their equipment.
The 1855 treaties left the Indians with their reservation south of the river and scattered riverside fishing sites that have since been flooded out by dams, or threatened by official complaints of poor sanitation and illegal fishing.
It is a slow defeat by lawsuit and court hearing and letters from Washington, D.C. Most of the Warm Springs, Yakima and other tribal members are accepting it quietly, as their ancestors did in 1855, watching the eclipse of an old way of life. But a few have resisted and suffered the consequences.
Bruce Jim is one of seven Columbia River-area Indians in federal prison for fishing violations. His relatives in the neighboring Yakima Tribe, David Sohappy Sr., David Sohappy Jr., Matthew McConville, Leroy Yocash and Wilbur Slockish Jr., are at the Sandstone Federal Corrections Institute in Minnesota. Jim's fellow Warm Springs Tribe member, Doug Palmer, entered Lompoc with him last August but had a lighter sentence and was recently released to a Portland halfway house.
Jim, who said he occasionally acted as middleman for people seeking fish, was convicted on charges involving the illegal sale or possession of $38,201.45 worth of fish and sentenced to five years. In an interview here, he said he does not expect to be released earlier than next spring.
He lives and works in Lompoc's "farm," the minimum security section of the prison that is temporary home to white-collar criminals who scratched their heads at the Warm Springs Indians' arrival.
"Fishing? What the hell kind of charge is fishing?" Palmer said one inmate asked him.
Jim's attorney in Portland, Jack Schwartz, clips news accounts of non-Indians receiving suspended sentences for similar offenses. In January, two Port Angeles, Wash., men pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor violations of state law for selling tons of illegally caught fish to Seattle-area restaurants. One received 30 days in jail, the other a suspended sentence and $1,000 fine.
But Jim and his fellow fishermen were unwilling to plead guilty. When they appeared for sentencing before U.S. District Court Judge Jack E. Tanner, they refused to express remorse for their crime. Under court rules, Tanner could toughen their sentences for that. Attorneys on both sides think that is what he did.
The day federal agents broke in to search the Cooks Landing homes of Jim, Sohappy and other Indians, Wayne Lewis, special agent in charge of the region's National Marine Fisheries Service law enforcement division, announced an undercover operation that had catalogued the illegal sale of "approximately 53 tons of fish involving transactions totaling over $150,000."
Jim said the principal undercover officer pestered him repeatedly to sell fish out of season. Because he never really thought the white man's rules had precedence over the old treaty, Jim said, he went ahead. Palmer, who got a three-year sentence, was particularly incensed by the actions of Judge Tanner, who is black.
"I thought he was kind of prejudiced. Just before he sentenced us there was another colored man in front of us for his second armed robbery charge and he gave that man one year, and that's when I thought we were going to get probation. When we got up there and he said three years, I was shocked."
Special agent Lewis, in a recent interview, rejected the contention that the Indian defendants were treated unfairly. He noted that Tanner, when he was a private attorney, had represented Indians in fishing cases. A non-Indian fish broker caught in the same federal operation also received a five-year sentence, Lewis said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Schroeder said that two years before the undercover operation, dubbed "Salmonscam," he spent nearly a year prosecuting 235 non-Indian fishermen accused of violating salmon restrictions. Jim's activities, he said, could not be overlooked, if authorities were to be fair.
Jim does not say much about this. He is not a talkative man. He cares for the farm's 3,300 cattle and counts the minimum 20 months he must remain here. "I don't like it," he said.
Barbara Jim works as a secretary for the tribal police department in Warm Springs, the center of the reservation accepted by the tribe in 1855. The town sits at the bottom of a dry canyon in Oregon's eastern desert, more than an hour's drive from the cool Columbia.
An occasionally lucrative timber industry on the reservation's western edge, plus a resort and other projects, have brought some prosperity. Three tribes -- Warm Springs, Wascoes and Paiutes -- built a modern headquarters on a hill three years ago. It is a place for large families and close ties.
Palmer moved from Lompoc to the Portland federal halfway house in May. In September, he will be free, but he does not see much chance of good fishing.
Ten years ago, the river and the authorities allowed him enough fish to support his family for most of the year. Now he says he will have to cut firewood and maybe repair small engines. "There just don't seem to be as many fish anymore," he said.