March 28, 1988 12:00 PM

David Sohappy stares forlornly from the window of his room at the Geiger Correctional Center, a minimum security prison in Spokane, Wash. The view is all gray sky and barbed wire, and the sight of it drives him back to his bunk. The snowy-haired Yakima Indian moves slowly, painfully, his left arm often dangling uselessly—the result, says Sohappy, of a stroke he suffered in August. But his doctor can find no evidence of a stroke and suspects what Freud called “hysterical paralysis.”

“He’s depressed,” says Dr. Daniel Schaffer. “To be put in jail away from his family—he hasn’t been able to handle it at all.” Though Sohappy is 62, he looks 20 years older. His body seems frail, his spirit broken. “I’m not used to being penned up,” he says almost inaudibly. “At home he’d be chopping wood,” adds his son, David Jr., 29, who is in prison along with his father. “He’d be mending nets and practicing his religion.”

Or he would be catching fish. That’s what cost Sohappy his freedom in the first place. Exercising what he understands to be his native rights, Sohappy had been catching salmon in the Columbia River since he was 5 years old without regard for limits or seasons. Then, in the spring of 1982, he was caught selling some of those fish to an undercover agent of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Convicted of a felony under tough new federal poaching laws, Sohapppy has so far served 19 months of a five-year sentence. “Ivan Boesky got three years for ripping off millions,” fumes Thomas Patrick Keefe Jr., Sohappy’s attorney, “and I’m sure he’ll do it with his feet up, reading the Wall Street Journal.”

That may be the least of the reasons why Sohappy’s imprisonment has become a cause célèbre in the Pacific Northwest. Free David Sohappy bumper stickers have been appearing on cars, and newspapers have been calling for his immediate release. Last summer, singers Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt headlined a sellout benefit for the Sohappy defense fund. Now, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, has taken up the cause. “Every day you hear about a murderer or rapist who gets out after a year in prison,” says Inouye, who visited Sohappy at Geiger earlier this month. “Here’s a person who, because of his religious beliefs, took some fish and got five years. I don’t see how the punishment fits the crime.”

Sympathy for Sohappy, however, is far from universal. “I see him as a thief motivated solely by greed,” says Rich Severtson, the special fisheries agent who engineered Sohappy’s arrest as part of a federal sting operation now known as Salmonscam. Noting that the number of salmon had dropped alarmingly in the Columbia near Cook’s Landing, Wash., where Sohappy lives, Severtson posed as a buyer of illegally taken fish. Over a period of 14 months he paid $150,000 for 6,100 fish to Sohappy and 68 other Indians, luring them over to the Oregon side of the river so that they could be charged with interstate trafficking. Then, in a dramatic predawn raid complete with automatic weapons and air support, Severtson’s men moved in and arrested the sellers.

Under the terms of a 1855 treaty, in which the Yakimas ceded 9 million acres to the government, the tribe retained the right to net salmon “in usual and customary places”—but only for personal use and ceremonial purposes, say the authorities. Though the temporary salmon drought near Cook’s Landing was later discovered to have been caused by fluoride contamination from a nearby aluminum plant and not by overfishing, Sohappy and the other Indians were nevertheless charged with conspiracy to catch and sell 53 tons of salmon illegally. Most of the charges against the others were later dropped or reduced to misdemeanors, but Sohappy was convicted of selling 317 fish, worth $9,685, for which he received the maximum sentence of five years. Prosecutor Stephen Schroeder speculates that, in handing down the stiff sentence, Judge Jack Tanner may have been influenced by Sohappy’s “stated contempt for all laws in relation to fishing.”

Certainly it was not Sohappy’s first run-in with the authorities. An elder of the Yakima’s Wanapum band and a healer in their traditional feather religion, Sohappy has always been a staunch defender of native fishing rights. In 1968 he filed one of the early lawsuits that led the Supreme Court to reaffirm this Indian prerogative. For Yakima traditionalists, salmon are sacramental, and catching them is a solemn duty. According to Sohappy, the Yakimas believe that “if you catch all those fish, they’ll come back a thousandfold. But if we stopped fishing, they wouldn’t come back.” So when the fish were running, the Sohappys fished every day except Sunday, a holy day, and brooked no interference.

Fisheries personnel, says Agent Severtson, had learned to regard Cook’s Landing, 164 miles from the mouth of the Columbia, as “a very dangerous place.” Severtson claims he was once fired on there by someone wielding a high-powered deer rifle, and he believes that that someone was Sohappy’s wife, Myra. (She denies it.) “He was not a naive businessman,” Severtson says of Sohappy. “He was very shrewd. He used police scanners to monitor law enforcement. He was even buying fish from other fishermen and selling at a profit to our agents.”

“If we’re so greedy,” says Myra, 62, Sohappy’s wife of 42 years, “then where are our luxuries?” The Sohappys’ house has a dirt floor, covered only in places with threadbare swatches of carpet. Mice sometimes scurry out from under the well-worn furniture. Dogs, cats and chickens roam amid the litter of old cars and beat-up motorboats in the front yard. “The [government agents] talked him into selling those fish by flashing all that money around,” says Myra. “We’re not criminals.”

With her son Sam, 23, and daughter Aleta, 37—four other children, in addition to the imprisoned David, no longer live at Cook’s Landing—Myra says she plans to resume fishing this spring. But getting along without her husband has been a struggle. “When he left, it was really hard for me at first,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. He chopped the wood. He paid the bills. He talked to the kids when I couldn’t get through to them. I really miss him.”

“It’s not just David Sohappy that’s at issue,” says Senator Inouye, who first looked into the poaching case after seeing a pro-Sohappy poster on a trip to Washington in February 1987. “Indian nations are sovereign and have been for 200 years. I intend to pursue this to its finality.”

Last December, Inouye met with Howard Baker, President Reagan’s chief of staff, and Attorney General Ed Meese. They agreed, the Senator thought, to have Sohappy’s sentence reduced to time served. Instead, on Christmas Eve the Justice Department offered to release Sohappy—but only if he would apologize. “No way,” says Sohappy. “I don’t think any apology was needed.” Inouye concurs, and says that he now will take the matter directly to the President.

Meanwhile, Sohappy’s family and friends worry about his flagging spirits. His hearing is impaired, and often he seems far away, lost in thought. Or just plain lost. “They’ve almost broken him,” says Myra in a whisper. The one thing that seems to sustain him is his determination to get back on the water. Several months ago Sohappy dreamed that he was walking out of prison in a snowstorm—a sign, he says, that he will be free before spring. And when he is? “I’ll get a fishing line out there in the river,” he says. “And then I’ll go argue some more.”

—By Jack Friedman, with Meg Grant in Spokane

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