William & Mary

Professor Fisher's Focus Is Environmental History and Use of Public Lands

As an Oregonian whose research focuses on the American West and modern American Indian history, I never imagined I would end up teaching in Tidewater, Virginia.

I'm happy to be here, though, especially because of the bright students and the accomplished but affable colleagues I get to work with in the history department and the Environmental Science and Policy program.

My involvement with the program reflects my interest in environmental history, which grew out of my early research into Indian subsistence practices and reserved rights on public lands. Through treaties with the U.S. government, many tribes retained the right to continue hunting, fishing and gathering at traditional locations both on and off their reservations.

My first article, published in 1997, examined a unique agreement between the forest service and Indians affiliated with the Yakama Nation to preserve tribal access to prized huckleberry fields in the Cascade Mountains of southern Washington state. The agreement remains in effect today, but the resource itself is now threatened by commercial pickers and forest encroachment, which has increased dramatically since the 1930s due to federal fire suppression policies.

Last summer, I attended a meeting between local forest service personnel and members of the Yakama tribal council to discuss better ways of managing the fields and keeping trespassers out of the reserved area. Although I'm hardly an expert on prescribed burning or law enforcement, I believe that education through teaching and publication is a key to creating productive dialogue and raising public awareness.

Last fall, thanks to funding from the Charles Center and the Environmental Science and Policy program, I was able to bring Carol Craig, a friend and contact from the Yakama Nation, to the College to speak to my students and a small group of environmental majors about her 30 years of work with salmon recovery in the Pacific northwest. Carol currently works as a public information manager for the tribe's Office of Fisheries Resource Management.

Salmon, which are sacred to the region's indigenous peoples, have suffered greatly from decades of overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and dam building on the Columbia River and its tributaries. Carol used to work for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which harmonizes tribal traditions with the best available science in order to put salmon back in the streams and provide a more hospitable environment for their propagation and migration.

My students greatly appreciated her insider's perspective on the issues they'd been reading about in class, and she enjoyed the chance to visit a different part of the country. She especially welcomed the opportunity to pose with John Smith–whose statue overlooks the equally polluted James River–and thank him for 400 years of "progress" in environmental stewardship. I meant to take her to visit the shad hatchery operated by the Pamunkey Tribe, but we got lost and had to abort the mission so that she wouldn't miss her plane. Evidently, I'm still learning my way around these parts.