February 26, 2024

The 50th Anniversary of the Boldt Decision is a Celebration of Native Leadership

A landmark lawsuit reaffirmed treaty fishing rights after decades of intertribal activism, inspired by the civil rights movement. Fifty years later, we look back at how far we’ve come and today's remnants of the Fish Wars.

By

ICT + Underscore News

Billy Frank Jr.’s father used to tell him, “When the tide is out, the table is set.” Frank Jr. grew up in a small house on the Nisqually River, where glacier water from Mount Rainier flows into the Puget Sound. Traditional fishing knowledge was passed down to Frank Jr. who caught his first fish at 11 years old. Just four years later, on a brisk winter morning in 1945, everything changed. In the first light of daybreak, dog salmon and steelhead with its glowing pink belly slapped their bodies against Frank Jr’s fifty-foot net as he pulled them ashore. 

Soon after he heard, “You’re under arrest!” yelled by state game wardens. 

“Leave me alone, goddamn it,” Frank Jr. a Nisqually Indian Tribe citizen, and one of the leaders of what is now known as the Fish Wars told them. “I fish here. I live here!” 

The first time Frank Jr. was arrested for fishing in his traditional waters he was just 14. This arrest motivated young Frank Jr. to become the impactful activist needed to change the treatment of Native fishers and fight back for his fishing rights. Frank Jr. became a leader of what is now referred to as the “Fish Wars.” The activism of tribal members during the Fish Wars, inspired by the civil rights movement at the time, led to a lawsuit that affirmed the treaty rights of over a dozen Native nations in what is now Washington state.   

Billy Frank Jr. attends Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission meeting, 1979. (Courtesy of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.)

In 1973, U.S. District Judge George Boldt ruled in U.S. v. Washington that treaties guaranteed the right to half the fishing harvest for more than a dozen Native nations in what is now Washington state. It also mandated a new era of co-management and conservation between sovereign Native governments and city and state governments. The ruling re-affirmed that treaties are the “supreme law of the land” under the Constitution. Fifty years later, this decision has created a ripple effect of progress for Native nations across what is now the United States. 

Governor Isaac Stevens, who drafted the treaties that were party to the Boldt decision, aimed to move Washington Native nations onto small reservations to free up land for white settlement, according to historical documents written by Stevens himself. Many nations understood that their choice was to sign a treaty or choose war. 

“What’s the use for Indians to fight whites?” one Salish leader asked. “White get big guns; lots of ammunition, kill off all soldiers, more come. Better sign and get some other way.” The leader was quoted by Charles Wilkinson in his book Treaty Justice: The Northwest Tribes, the Boldt Decision, and the Recognition of Fishing Rights, which published in January. Nisqually fishing rights activist Billy Frank Jr. asked Wilkinson to write the book, chronicling the years of activism that led up to the Boldt decision.  

Despite this dire choice, many Native nations still would not sign the treaties without guaranteed off-reservation fishing rights. So, the right to take fish, “at all usual and accustomed grounds” was secured by treaties signed in the mid-1800s. 

By the 1950s, Native nations had endured violent assimilation policies like the Dawes Act that made Native religions, languages, education and health practices illegal. The boarding school era had forcibly removed Native children from their families and abused them to “kill the Indian, save the man.” The General Allotment Act broke up reservation lands, allotted plots of lands to individual citizens of those Native nations, and gave “surplus lands” to non-Natives. The Indian Relocation Act that promised Native people jobs if they moved to the city and left their lands – promises that often failed to materialize. And termination of the federal government’s relationship with treaty nations and selling of their land were devastating. 

The impact of these assimilation policies meant that at least 60 percent of Native people living on reservations were living in poverty. Washington state was claiming to regulate Native fishing for conservation purposes, hindering the ability to fish for sustenance, livelihood, and traditional ways of life. Before settlement, the Pacific Northwest produced more protein per acre than any other place in what’s now considered North America, according to Wilkinson. Due to the development of fish canneries and the commercial fishing industry, salmon had dramatically declined. Excessive harvest, as well as habitat degradation, irrigation, mining, logging, water pollution and the construction of dams had major impacts. 

From left, Randy Harder, Billy Frank Jr., Terry Williams, Jim Harp attend a congressional hearing in Washington D.C. (Courtesy of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.)

According to Herman Olson, a Lummi fisherman, the canneries would come and put their traps right off Lummi Island to catch salmon and push Lummi fishers out. 

By the early 1960s, “tribal fishers were taking only 6 percent of the total Puget Sound harvest while sport fishers took 8.5 percent and commercial fishers took 85.5 percent,” according to  Wilkinson. Yet state agencies began arresting Native fisherman for fishing in their treaty-guaranteed fishing areas. Commercial and sport fishers violently targeted them as well. 

Native fishers had their nets slashed or stolen. Their boats were also vandalized or stolen and they were even threatened with guns. 

“I was fishing with my son and a white man’s boat came right toward my net line and ran over it and cut it all up,” Lummi citizen Ted Plaster told Wilkinson. “They do that all the time to Indians… They think they own all the fish.”

The Fish Wars

Going to the police was not an option for Native fishermen who were on the receiving end of police raids and arrests that included brutal beatings. Many of the fishermen were veterans of World War II or the Korean War and aligned with the Black Panther Party, whose members were utilizing their right to bear arms to protect their communities. The civil rights movement’s tactics were inspiring to Native people whose rights were also being violated and that resulted in mutual solidarity. Because of the violence they faced, Native fishermen armed themselves to guard their nets, boats and often, their livelihood. 

“To defend our rights, tribes mounted a nonviolent resistance effort patterned after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy in his civil rights campaign,” Frank Jr. wrote. “We marched with Dr. King, and when we returned home, we continued the struggle by protesting, getting arrested, getting out of jail and doing it all over again.”

In the 1960s, Native Americans and their supporters began protesting Washington State laws restricting Native American fishing rights that had been granted in a series of treaties with the United States between 1854 and 1855. The Survival of the American Indian Society (SAIA), the NAACP, and the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), coordinated a series of protests and peaceful demonstrations known at the time collectively as the "fish wars," which eventually led to the Boldt Decision (United States v. Washington, 1974), a federal ruling guaranteeing Washington tribes the right to fish in accustomed places and the right to act alongside the state as co-managers of salmon and other fish in the region.In this image, Makah tribal dancers entertain a crowd of Native Americans and their supporters in the rotunda of the State Capitol building in Olympia. The crowd was waiting to hear from Washington State Governor Albert Dean "Al" Rosellini (1910-2011), to whom they had submitted a one-page "protest proclamation" signed by most tribes in the state asking the governor to honor treaty rights by immediately halting arrests of Native Americans for illegal fishing off reservations. The governor said that he had no choice but to carry out conservation policies approved by the courts. (Courtesy of MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.4415.2)

Black civil rights activists used sit-ins, a nonviolent form of civil disobedience where people raised awareness about racial discrimination by gathering in “whites only” businesses until they were forcibly removed. Similarly, Native people started holding fish-ins where they notified the media and simply fished at their traditional sites until they were forcibly removed. 

The first fish-in was on March 1, 1964 on the Puyallup River. The following day another was held at the Nisqually River with Frank Jr. From the time he was 14 until the end of the Fish Wars he would be arrested over 50 times. 

At one of the fish-ins, a newscaster asked him: “If you had to put it in a sentence, what is it that you want in the long run?”

Frank Jr. replied: “What we want is to regain and to retain our treaty rights.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Native Americans and their supporters began protesting Washington State laws restricting Native American fishing rights that had been granted in a series of treaties with the United States between 1854 and 1855. The Survival of the American Indian Society (SAIA), the NAACP, and the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), coordinated a series of protests and peaceful demonstrations known at the time collectively as the "fish wars," which eventually led to the Boldt Decision (United States v. Washington, 1974), a federal ruling guaranteeing Washington tribes half the state's salmon and steelhead trout catch. The Muckleshoot Tribe near Auburn, Washington, engaged in a series of protests intended to preserve Muckleshoot fishing rights in nearby rivers that were not within the official reservation. County and state authorities had tried to regulate their fishing off-reservation. On May 4, 1970, members of the Muckleshoot Tribe entered the Green River near the Auburn Golf Course with nets and gaff hooks to assert their right to fish in the river. A game warden acted as an observer but did not intervene in the peaceful protest. The group caught 2 salmon over the course of the day. (Courtesy of MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.52952.17, photo by Tom Barlet.)

By 1970, tensions and violence against the protesters at the fish-ins were at an all time high but the cause had also gained much more support. A six-week long fish-in where hundreds of people, Native and non-Native allies, camped in a peaceful protest at Frank’s Landing on the Puyallup River made national headlines when Tacoma police raided the camp. 

The camp was located near the Pacific Avenue Bridge in Tacoma. Police lined the bridge with rifles pointed at the peaceful protesters. Other officers in riot helmets used tear gas and billy clubs against the people at the camps, including children and elders. Sixty people were handcuffed, beaten and dragged into police cars to be arrested. 

The Boldt Decision

Stan Pitkin, a prosecuting attorney, sat under the bridge with other observers when the police threw tear gas into the crowd and dragged Native fisherman to jail. Just nine days after experiencing being tear gassed and witnessing the violence, Pitkin filed United States v. State of Washington. The lawsuit asserted that the State of Washington was infringing on Native treaty rights. 

President Nixon had also just announced an end to the termination era

It took three years for the case to be heard. In that time, another seven Native nations joined the lawsuit against the state and the Washington Department of Fisheries. Other state agencies also joined as defendants. For the trial, anthropologists, biologists, fishery management and other experts submitted 350 exhibits and 49 witnesses testified, much of it to better understand Native cultures and the treaties. 

David Getches and John Echohawk at the NARF offices in Boulder, Colo., in the 1970s. (Courtesy of Native American Rights Fund.)

On Feb. 12, 1974, Judge Boldt ruled that the Native nations who signed the treaties that were reviewed in the case could take up to half the catch each year. In addition, non-Native fishing could also be limited for conservation purposes. 

“There is no indication that the Indians intended or understood the language ‘in common with all citizens of the Territory’ to limit their right to fish in any way,” Boldt said in his ruling.

“It was just such a great victory,” John Echohawk, Pawnee, co-founder and executive director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), told ICT + Underscore News. 

Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission staff collect salmon for a tagging study at the Lower Elwha Klallam Hatchery in 1979. (Courtesy of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.)

It was not only a victory for the Native nations included in the case. Now, there was legal precedent acknowledging the primacy of treaty rights and the sovereignty of each Native nation. Based on the ruling, NARF took up cases like United States versus Michigan, where the Bay Mills Indian Community was fighting for fishing rights in the Great Lakes, in addition to many other lawsuits on behalf of tribes across the country who needed to bring cases to federal court to enforce their treaty rights. 

“There was collaboration between the Michigan tribes and the Washington tribes on that,” Echohawk said. “They learned from each other.”

The Boldt Decision also helped build government-to-government relationships. Now that half of every fish harvest was to be managed by Native governments, working together to co-manage and conserve became mandatory. 

Meaningful partners

The leaders of the fishing rights movement had been working to create a intertribal fisheries commission for at least a decade before the Boldt Decision. Now that co-management was required of the state, the 19 federally recognized treaty tribes formed the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission with the goal of giving "the treaty tribes the capability of speaking with a single voice on fisheries management and conservation matters." 

“It was a learning process for the states,” Echohawk said. “They didn't really understand tribal sovereignty and of course, really didn't have any experience working with tribal governments.”

Lorraine Loomis with Gov. Gary Locke was a leader in fisheries management. She was vice chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission from 1995 to 2014 when she became chair of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission after Billy Frank Jr.'s passing. (Courtesy of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.)

Co-management goes beyond basic harvest management. As the co-management and conservation efforts have evolved so have the relationships. Treaty nations in the Boldt decision not only collaborate with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife but with the Department of Ecology, the EPA, even the Army and Navy. Any department or agency that could impact the habitat and the environment. 

According to Jamestown S'Klallam Chairman Ron Allen, co-management garnered respect. “[State government agencies] realized that we were definitely meaningful partners, because we brought a lot of expertise and skill sets to the table and so that changed the game in terms of relationship,” Allen said in an interview. . 

Allen became chairman shortly after the Boldt Decision and has been a lifetime advocate for land and fishing rights. Once the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe became federally recognized in 1981, it intervened as a signatory of the Treaty of Point No Point, so the tribe’s people could fish both traditionally and commercially. 

“It was quite an evolution over the course of 50 years,” Allen said. “It has been an amazing learning experience and we kept learning every year, as we kept growing into very sophisticated managers. We had to figure out how to defend our rights and interests and that changed the game because we had to focus on habitat. If you don't have the habitat, you don't have salmon.”

Northwest Fisheries Commission staff plant clam seeds in 1980. (Courtesy of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.)

Jay Mills, Suquamish council member and traditional fisherman, agreed.

“As far as co-management, I think it's important that everyone understands that 50 percent of nothing is nothing,” Mills told ICT + Underscore News. 

The Suquamish usual and accustomed fishing areas are from the tip of Vashon Island all the way up to the Canadian border. “That's a vast area and whatever happens in that area that impacts the environment is a concern to us,” Mills said. 

One example Mills gave is the overdevelopment of Suquamish lands. The nation owns very little waterfront property and things like failed septic systems and stormwater runoff are major polluters that impact salmon. Although Suquamish co-manages the conservation of salmon in the water, it can't regulate the septic systems and stormwater runoff on waterfront property it doesn't own. 

Recently, coho smolts salmon from a hatchery run by Suquamish Nation and the University of Washington, were all dying in Grovers creek once they were released. Researchers found that an additive in tires was going into the runoff from the roads. The toxic chemical got into the creeks and killed the coho. 

“Unless something is done none of us are going to have anything,” Mills said. 

Not a win for everyone

This is one of many conservation issues that the Native nations whose treaties were included in the Boldt decision continue to work on. If you are not one of these treaty nations or your Native nation is not federally recognized, fishing rights and inclusion in co-management aren’t guaranteed. 

“The states of Washington, Oregon, really focused on emphasizing the relationship with the Boldt and treaty tribes and that meant that folks like us were left out,”  Chinook Indian Nation Chairman Tony Johnson said. The Chinook Indian Nation has fought for nearly two centuries for federal recognition

“Chinook lives in such a strange gray area where we've had all the experiences of any federally recognized tribal folks,” Johnson said. “I was 13 years old fishing.” 

Chinook Nation Chairman Tony Johnson holds up the First Salmon during the annual First Salmon Ceremony at Fort Columbia, Wash. in 2016. (Photo by Amiran White)

But because the Chinook are not federally recognized their fishing rights aren’t honored the way the treaty tribes involved in the Boldt decision have been. 

The Chinook aren’t the only nation whose fishing rights on their traditional fishing grounds continue to be overlooked by the state. The Duwamish, Snohomish, and others  who are also not federally recognized experience the same barriers to fishing. Johnson pointed out that the Cowlitz Indian Tribe has had similar experience until becoming federally recognized in 2000. The Shoalwater Bay Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Indian Reservation’s off-reservation fishing rights were officially rejected by Washington state district court in 1996, in part because neither tribe signed treaties negotiated by Gov. Stevens.

“The vast majority of tribal folks in our area, recognized or not, do not have the rights that Boldt tribes are enjoying,” Johnson said. “We celebrate the fact that folks have that right and that access and have that win, but we definitely need those folks to be thinking about us.”

Former Chinook Indian Nation chairman, Gary Johnson, left, walks with his son, current Chinook Indian Nation chairman, Tony Johnson, on the beach in Bay Center named after their family - Johnson Beach. (Photo by Amiran White)

Johnson’s uncle and other men in his community were involved in many efforts to preserve their rights to continue to fish in the same way that their fathers, grandfathers and family members had since time immemorial. After the Boldt Decision, Johnson’s uncle, Leroy Johnson, met with Judge Boldt. Johnson said Boldt told his uncle that he thought his decision had limited the fishing rights of Native people in Washington. 

“And that's certainly our experience,” Johnson said. 

The Boldt decision also couldn’t protect the Makah Tribe’s ancestral halibut fishing grounds in what is now Canada. The U.S. and Canada ignored the Makah Nation’s treaty fishing rights and declared exclusive fishing zones in 1977, allegedly to prevent overfishing.  

Native leadership

Still, Boldt Decision anniversaries are largely a celebratory time across Washington. It was a monumental decision that re-affirmed treaty rights and sovereignty, which had a ripple effect for Native nations across the country. It also acknowledged in federal court the cultural, spiritual and historical importance of salmon to the Native nations included in the decision. But Boldt and Native fisherman felt the wrath of angry sport and commercial fishermen after the decision was made and that anger is still felt today. 

The Department of Game and Fisheries refused to enforce the new fishing orders and judges dismissed charges of illegal fishing against non-Native fishers. According to Wilkinson, commercial fishermen took at least 1.8 million pounds of fish illegally in 1977. The lawlessness of non-Native fishers went beyond illegal fishing. They rammed boats, cut Native fishing nets, slashed tires and even fired shots at Lummi fisherman, one of which was a 14-year-old boy.

Even after a  U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1979 meant the Boldt decision became settled law, the violence and abuse of Native fishermen didn’t end. Remnants of the Fish Wars remain. Mills and his family fish along the Sinclair Inlet. The fish that are there are hatchery fish, introduced by the Suquamish Tribe through what they call a terminal fishery because the fish they put there have nowhere to go and spawn. 

“We're fishing out there and the people that are driving to work in the shipyard are just calling us every name in the book, ‘You effing Indians,’ almost every day, Mills said. “I was fishing locally here off the reservation and this guy came out and said, ‘Get the F off my beach!,’ This guy was just red in the face, swearing.”

Mills says he has even had people come and cut his fishing lines. 

Jay Mills and daughter Jillian Dungeness crab fishing Salish Sea. (Courtesy of Jay Mills.)

“I hoped that that would never have to happen to my kids or my grandkids and I'm sorry to say that it did,” Mills said. “Here we're trying to work out these government-to-government agreements, but the people that have to carry out or follow some of these rules don't understand what the treaty right is and so you're always having to explain yourself.”

Violence like Mills described has happened less frequently over the last 50 years largely due to Native leadership working to educate the public and state government as well as all the conservation work each nation continues to do. 

“I think having the leadership of tribal leaders on all these issues over the years has really helped,” Echohawk said. “We've had great leaders over these decades. We still do. And we just really need to be proud of our tribal leadership.”

Lead Image: In the 1960s, Native Americans and their supporters began protesting Washington State laws restricting Native American fishing rights that had been granted in a series of treaties with the United States between 1854 and 1855. The Survival of the American Indian Society (SAIA), the NAACP, and the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), coordinated a series of protests and peaceful demonstrations known at the time collectively as the "fish wars," which eventually led to the Boldt Decision (United States v. Washington, 1974), a federal ruling guaranteeing Washington tribes the right to fish in accustomed places and the right to act alongside the state as co-managers of salmon and other fish in the region. (Courtesy of MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 2000.107.096.09.01, photo by Howard Staples)

About the author

Luna Reyna

Luna Reyna is a writer and broadcaster whose work has centered the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. Before coming to Underscore News and ICT as the Seattle-based Northwest Bureau Chief, Luna was Crosscut’s Indigenous Affairs Reporter, and her work has appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, Prism Reports, Talk Poverty and more. Luna is proud of her Little Shell Chippewa heritage and is passionate about reporting that sheds light on colonial white supremacist systems of power.

Twitter: @LunaBReyna

Email: lunar@underscore.news