I rode in Les Parks’ pickup truck down a gravel road that runs through the heart of the Tulalip Indian Reservation. A hard November rain drummed on the cab.
Les and I talked fishing, something people have done on rainy November days in Snohomish County since long before there were pickup trucks or gravel roads.
A longtime Tulalip leader, Parks was then serving his ninth year on the tribes’ board of directors. He spoke of watching his daughters haul bright chinook salmon from Tulalip Bay. I talked about a trip I’d made not long before to a lake where hungry coastal cutthroat trout rose to a well-placed fly.
Les’ face lit up as he spoke of chasing fish: the delicious anticipation, the peace that comes from being patient and optimistic. The ultimate, he said, would be to fish well enough to capture a winter-run steelhead, the powerful sea-going trout generally regarded by anglers as the region’s premier catch.
Les and I glanced at each other, sharing the dopey smile that comes only from fantasizing about great fish yet to be met. Then it struck me: I was thinking about catching fish on a fly; for Les it could be with a gill net.
Les was one of the tribal board members who voted in 2004 for the tribe to back Mylo Harvey’s family, financially if necessary, in pursuing litigation over his death.
It was an unusual decision, a tribal government pledging itself to a family’s personal struggle.
I’d heard this decision was being watched closely by Indian people in the Northwest. Some believed the fight had as much importance to Indians as the salmon wars of the mid-1970s, which affirmed treaty rights of tribes to half the fish and shellfish in the region.
I asked Les to explain why Mylo’s case was important to Tulalip.
He said he’d have to show me.
“He had everything going for him,” he said. “If I looked at Mylo, I was looking at myself at that age.”
Les was generous with his time and his story. We piled into his black Dodge Ram pickup, feathers hanging from the rearview mirror. He pointed the truck west on Marine Drive, the main road through the reservation. Not long ago it was the bloodiest route in the county for drunken driving deaths. That history is memorialized by a legion of roadside signs bearing the names of the dead.
Les pulled to the shoulder about a mile into the reservation.
A sign stood in memory of Violet “Speedy” Parks, Les’ mom. She died in 1966. He was 9.
Drinking led to the tragedy that night and contributed to a tough start in life, Les said. His family sometimes lived in homes without indoor plumbing. In some places drinking water had to be hauled in from a standpipe that had been placed in a local spring.
Les and I are about the same age.
When he was a boy, I was growing up just a few miles away, south of Everett. I still remember my first visit to Tulalip. It was as part of a third-grade class field trip from Silver Lake Elementary School. We were bused in to tour the tribal fish hatchery. We spent an hour listening to a storyteller.
More than three decades later, my daughter at roughly the same age and growing up in nearby Marysville, made an almost identical journey.
When Les was a kid, the tribal payroll had 30 employees. Today there are more than 2,200, and the tribes are second only to the Boeing Co. as a producer of new jobs in Snohomish County.
The Tulalips owe much of their recent success to gambling and careful investment of profits in economic development. They’ve been generous in their good fortune, contributing heavily to local charities. The newspaper’s pages often are home to stories and letters about people questioning the tribes’ motives and their legal authority to direct affairs on the reservation.
Although a lot is different at Tulalip, some things haven’t changed. People here are taught from an early age to focus on the differences.
Les’ father is a tribal fisherman. He often worked with Porter Cooper, Mylo’s maternal grandfather. Port is honored on the reservation, in part, for finding a way to help the tribes sell their catch during the ugliest hours of the 1970s fishing wars.
In those years, Les and one of his brothers, Glen “Rocky” Parks III, were put in a 12-foot skiff and told by their father to begin straining the waters off Priest Point with a gill net. The teenagers would row up the Snohomish River estuary, set their net, and drift with the tide.
Almost all of their fishing occurred at night, when salmon are most on the move. At night, sound carries easily over the water, Les said. Nontribal people living at Priest Point weren’t happy to see Indians fishing in front of their homes.
“We used to get a lot of flak from people. Ugly stuff. We’d fire ugly stuff right back,” Les said.
Rocky Parks died in a fishing accident in 1990. He was 32. Les still fishes near Priest Point. He took me to see where. We parked near a patch of grass. A few years back, a construction project unearthed Indian bones and cedar timbers believed to be part of a tribal shelter buried by a mudslide long ago.
It was evidence, Les said, that Tulalip people – his people – have been here forever.
Not all that long ago, Les set his net in the water. He returned to find it cut into pieces and neatly stacked on the beach. Somebody was sending a message.
“I was just furious,” he recalled.
So the fisherman prepared for a different catch. He repaired the net and ran it out again, attracting attention by flashing his light around and making a ruckus. He continued making noise as he hiked a winding trail leading back up the hill to his house.
Later, he quietly crept back. He spent a freezing night hidden in the tree line, fighting sleep and keeping an eye on his net. At one point, he must have dozed off because somebody snuck up on him. Les said he came up quick with a rifle, then just as quickly realized he was looking at a stump, and that anger had taken him to a bad place.
“What in the world was I thinking?” he asked. “What was I going to do?”
Les graduated from high school in Marysville in 1975. He’d struggled to get that far. A tough teacher in his senior year helped him buckle down and earn his diploma. He learned carpentry. His first job out of school was swinging a hammer for the tribes.
Les admits partying got him into trouble during his teens when he was nearly beaten to death at a gathering near Darrington. Then, in the mid 1980s, he became entangled with a cocaine ring and wound up being arrested by police.
By then he had kids of his own. He knew how to learn from his mistakes.
Les worked through the legal mess and set about building a life – for himself and for all the others in his family and the tribe who were counting on him.
When Les was a boy, there were about 900 registered tribal members. There now are more than 4,000. The Tulalip Tribes grow each year with the birth of between 150 and 170 children.
Mylo was a part of the tribes’ future, Les said. He believes there was a good chance Mylo would have put his mistake behind him and one day grown to be a leader, too. Mylo comes from a family that has led the tribes in the past, Les said. And he had the charisma and drive to one day find himself showing the way for others to follow.
Now Mylo’s promise is gone, Les said.