Governor Stevens And I – OpEd

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When Governor Isaac Stevens went around Puget Sound in the mid-1850s making treaties with the Indian tribes to clear the way for an anticipated influx of whites, he found again and again that asking for the tribal chief got him nowhere. The Indians would look around and shrug their shoulders. They had no chiefs. Like many North American Indian tribes, they made communal decisions by consensus, with at most a special influence being exerted by one or two respected elder males.

But Stevens, hellbent on following the treaty-making protocol established among Western nations, plowed ahead, finding someone on each occasion to treat as the chief who would put his X on the treaty to make it official. To make matters worse, the negotiations took place via interpreters who employed the Chinook Jargon, a trade language used by the local Indians to communicate (roughly) with one another, a language with only a few hundred words, a language obviously incapable of facilitating Stevens’s rather delicate negotiations. What the hell: the treaties were written in English, “signed” by some Indian or another, and treated as sufficient by the whites who sought to keep the Indians out of the way as they took over the area and exploited its natural resources.

More than a hundred years later, these phony-baloney treaties became the basis for federal court cases decided in what is known as the Boldt decision, after the judge who handed it down in 1974. In the aftermath of this decision, all hell broke loose because the Indians, who had been catching less than 10 percent of the salmon in Washington waters, were now given a right to harvest half of the salmon. The white fishers went ape.

In the sequel, state and federal regulators attempted to get control of the situation and keep the melee from becoming violent, and in the process I was retained as an economic consultant, first by Washington state and later by the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council, to assist in the process. Fisheries consulting occupied me in one way or another from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s, when I worked for an industry association in connection with federal regulation of the Bering Sea pollock fishery. (For a while, the famous economist Arnold Harberger was part of our team.) Thus is established the connection between Isaac Stevens and me. Ain’t history fascinating!

Robert Higgs

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation.

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