Matt Driscoll

‘You should face the truth.’ Bridge over Puyallup River to carry the name Fishing Wars

Bill Sterud described the process that’s expected to become official this week as “bittersweet.” And for good reason.

Sterud, 67, was first elected to the Puyallup Tribal Council in 1978. He knows the history of the Fishing Wars well.

On Tuesday night — assuming the Tacoma City Council signs off on the plan — the Puyallup River Bridge, as it’s commonly known, will be renamed Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge.

Meanwhile, Eells Street — the roadway that runs across the bridge — will be renamed the Fishing Wars Memorial Crossing.

For Sterud, renaming the bridge and the roadway won’t right a wrong. It’s too late for that, he said. He knows all about the struggle the new name will pay homage to, now 50 years in the past, and acknowledged that the mere thought of it still “brings back some hard feelings.”

Even now, it’s still fresh for him.

Renaming the bridge will, however, acknowledge a wrong, Sterud said, and that’s important.

“It says a lot for the city of Tacoma to realize that mistake in its past,” Sterud said. “I’m glad to see that recognition is taking place.”

Sterud knows how in the 1960s and 1970s, tribal fisherman —fighting for the fishing rights guaranteed to them in treaties but not yet affirmed by the courts — were beaten and arrested along the banks of the Puyallup River. He knows how armed law enforcement officers — including Tacoma police officers — regularly stood on the bridge that spans over the river, guns drawn.

So roughly five years ago, when the city of Tacoma first approached the Puyallup Tribe in need of a land easement to fix and rebuild that very same bridge, Sterud said he was understandably “wary” of the city and its motivations.

“You’re talking about 150 years of fighting for our rights,” he said, offering an explanation that’s really not necessary. “The river is sacred.”

Physically, the bridge — which is scheduled to reopen this summer after a lengthy renovation effort — connects Tacoma and Fife.

Fundamentally, the city’s pending decision to rename it — which has been recommended by the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission and the city’s Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability Commission — is meant to strengthen Tacoma’s relationship with the Puyallup Tribe.

There is a host of reasons why the bridge’s new name — which the Puyallup Tribe suggested — makes sense. From the city’s perspective, the most obvious is, quite simply, that the relationship between Tacoma and the Puyallup Tribe hasn’t always been great.

As Sterud noted, the bridge itself played a prominent role in the years-long treaty rights struggle. Located on the Puyallup reservation, it also spans above ceremonial grounds used during the Puyallup Tribe’s annual First Fish Ceremony.

Renaming the bridge is also the latest sign that Tacoma’s leaders are trying to do a better job fostering a real relationship between the city and the tribe. A City Council Action Memorandum describes the renaming as part of the “reconciliation between the Tribe and the City.”

“We are really trying to strengthen our relationship with the tribe,” Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said last October when the City Council officially declared the second Monday of the month Indigenous Peoples Day and also announced the city’s intention to rename the bridge.

“It seemed kind of obvious and right to give the bridge a name that recognized the history,” Alisa O’Hanlon, Tacoma’s government relations coordinator, added this week.

Five years ago, O’Hanlon said, the history of the bridge wasn’t something city staff knew much about.

“This has been a really great opportunity to tell that history of the Fishing Wars,” O’Hanlon said.

For Sterud, that’s what this is about. Not only will it honor everyone involved in the long Fishing Wars struggle — something that’s incredibly important to the Tribal Council, he said — but it will serve as a reminder to future generations of what happened here.

“I think it’s going to help provide education. People will be driving by the bridge, they’re going to see this artwork, these signs and these words … and it will cause them to wonder just what it was,” Sterud said of the importance of renaming the bridge.

“You should tell the truth in history,” he added. “You should face the truth and move on from there, and I believe that’s what the city of Tacoma is doing right now.”

It’s long overdue.

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Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.