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50 years ago Boldt decision affirmed Northwest tribes' treaty fishing rights

Two men hold a historic photo standing near a river.
Ted S. Warren
Billy Frank Jr., left, a Nisqually tribal elder who was arrested dozens of times while trying to assert his native fishing rights during the Fish Wars of the 1960s and '70s, poses for a photo Jan. 13, 2014, with Ed Johnstone, of the Quinault tribe, at Frank's Landing on the Nisqually River in Nisqually, Wash. They are holding a photo from the late 1960s of Frank and Don McCloud fishing on the river. Frank died May 5, 2014, at age 83. Johnstone remains involved in fishery management as the chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

50 years ago, on February 12, 1974, Judge George Boldt issued a ruling that transformed many lives in Washington state.

It affirmed tribal fishing rights that were promised in treaties signed throughout the Pacific Northwest in the 1850s. For decades those rights were trampled. The Boldt decision is now hailed as one of the 20th century’s most important civil rights cases.

KNKX reporter Bellamy Pailthorp joined KNKX Morning Edition Host Kirsten Kendrick to discuss the case, then and now.

Listen to their discussion above or read the transcript below.


Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick: 50 years ago today, Judge George Boldt issued a ruling that transformed many lives in Washington state. It affirmed tribal fishing rights that were promised in the treaties signed throughout the Northwest in the 1850s. For decades, those rights were trampled. The Boldt decision is now hailed as one of the 20th century's most important civil rights cases. KNKX Environment Reporter Bellamy Pailthorp is here to discuss the case, then and now.

Bellamy, let's start with how the Boldt decision came about. It all goes back to the fishing wars. Right?

KNKX Environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp: Right. And the fishing wars are said to have started in 1945 with the first arrest of Nisqually fishing rights activist Billy Frank Jr, who was arrested for fishing at age 14 on his home river.

So even though all the treaties between the European settlers and the Indigenous tribes specifically promised fishing rights, in exchange for land that the tribes had given up, for decades, state officials didn't honor that promise. In fact, they routinely harassed tribal members and often brutally tried to prevent them from fishing.

I learned a lot about this by sitting with Puyallup elder Ramona Bennett, who was elected as her tribe's Chairwoman in 1971. She described what it was like on her home river, the Puyallup, in the 1960s.

Ramona Bennett (clip): "Anytime any of our people went fishing, here'd come the game wardens. And they crossed deputized, like an army. And they had jet boats. I mean, you'd be amazed at the weapons they had."

Pailthorp: And it wasn't just the game wardens. It was also the general public, harassing people, vandalizing their gear. So Bennett was among the activists who began turning arrests into media events, by making them highly public and alerting the press.

She set up a camp beneath what is now the Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge on a highly visible part of the Puyallup River. And there was a huge standoff with guns, knives, tear gas and clubs. Bennett told me she fought back, got arrested along with about 60 others, and was ultimately facing the possibility of 35 years in prison — all because they were trying to defend their fishing rights. And really, this was their way of life.

So that standoff in 1970, was the culmination of dozens of 'fish-ins' that led to the U.S. Attorney joining 20 treaty tribes and taking Washington state to court, to sue for protection of tribal fishing rights.

Kendrick: So this really was a civil rights issue.

Pailthorp: That's right, and so much so that Judge Boldt pointedly handed down this decision so it would coincide with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. He's said to have had it ready sooner, but he wanted to make a point because Lincoln was known for abolishing slavery, and he felt this was on par with that. His ruling, which recognized the tribes rights to half the state's fish, in their usual and accustomed areas.

Kendrick: Wow, half of the fish, even though they were not half of the population. How did the judge come to this conclusion?

Pailthorp: Yeah. The tribes were simply arguing for their fair share, along with the U.S. Attorney. It seems Judge Boldt put a premium on the value of tribal culture.

Because, according to a new book called Treaty Justice by historian Charles Wilkinson, Judge Boldt was very focused during this trial on the extent to which salmon and fishing were central to tribal cultures and their way of life in Washington.

The defense was arguing that it no longer was, but the tribes disagreed and many of the witnesses also wore traditional clothing to court and spoke their Indigenous languages there, to make the point that they had not abandoned these ways. Judge Boldt was apparently quite taken by this. He considered 50% of the returning fish their fair share. And that initial ruling also required the state and the Tribes to co-manage the fishery.

Kendrick: So flash forward to today, what does the Boldt decision mean to people now?

Pailthorp: It's obviously a hugely important foundation of tribal sovereignty, and an affirmation of treaty fishing rights and the right to co-management, even today.

But I went to a symposium for two days last week out at the Muckleshoot reservation — about 500 people registered for this event. And there was a lot of commemoration of the important history here, but also concern about the future and co-management into the future. Because fish returns are way down, despite extensive work on habitat restoration and millions of dollars spent on that. It's really challenging.

Here's a quote from Nisqually Chairman Willie Frank the third. He's the son of the late Billy Frank Jr. and chairman of the Nisqually now, and also a tribal fisherman.

Willy Frank, III (clip): "We used to fish eight months out of the year, but now we're down to seven days."

Kendrick: Wow, from eight months to seven days.

Pailthorp: Yeah, it is really tough. And you know, add to that the fast pace of development these days, the wild card of climate change, and it's clear that there needs to be some new thinking and maybe some more political will to do more - to preserve these fish into the future. Because half of the state's fish is nothing if we don't have fish runs returning.

Kendrick: All right Bellamy, I appreciate all your reporting on this.

Pailthorp: Thank you, Kirsten, it's my pleasure.

Updated: February 12, 2024 at 1:32 PM PST
Updated with the correct spelling of the last name of author Charles Wilkinson.
Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to
Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.