“They gassed us, clubbed us, dragged us, beat us. Those were hard times,” said Puyallup elder Ramona Bennett, recalling the brutal treatment of tribal fishermen and their families by state enforcement officers during the treaty fishing rights struggle of the 1960s and ’70s.
The struggle led to the landmark 1974 ruling by federal Judge George Boldt in U.S. v. Washington. Boldt’s ruling upheld the treaty-reserved salmon harvest right of the tribes, establishing them as co-managers of the resource and affirming the tribal right to half of the harvestable salmon returning to their historic fishing sites.
Tribes gathered in early February to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Boldt decision with a daylong symposium looking at the past, present and future of U.S. v. Washington and tribal treaty rights. “This was the same time as the peace strikes and the civil rights movement,” Bennett said. “There was a change going on and we got to be part of that change.”
The Fish War of the 1960s and ’70s was actually the second Treaty War, said Muckleshoot tribal member Gilbert King George. “Research has shown that families who fought in the second Treaty War are, in most cases, direct descendants of the warriors that fought in the first Treaty War of 1855 to ’56. We won both wars, no matter what they tell you in history.”
Muckleshoot elder Leo LaClair recalled helping to get the word out about the treaty fishing rights struggle. Seeking witnesses to the violence being shown to treaty tribal fishermen and their families, he invited Dr. Evans Roberts of the American Friends Service Committee and University of Washington Medical School, to attend a “Fish-In” protest on the Nisqually River.
“What he saw was a terrible, violent confrontation,” LaClair said. “It was a horrific scene.”
The experience sparked Roberts to draft Uncommon Controversy, the first book to detail the treaty fishing rights struggle. A companion book, Treaties on Trial, soon followed. Together, the two books provide a comprehensive look at the treaty fishing rights struggle and the Boldt decision. At the Boldt 40 celebration, Indian activist Hank Adams – who organized most of the Fish War protests – shared a story about a confrontation on the Nisqually River involving his good friend, NWIFC chairman Billy Frank Jr. Frank had been fishing off-reservation, just upriver from his home at Frank’s Landing. He was returning with his catch when he saw a few dozen state fish and game enforcement officers lining the opposite bank. When the officers launched two fast boats to intercept him, Frank gunned his skiff toward the landing and yelled to Adams onshore: “Get the gun!” Get the gun!”
Adams grabbed the rifle and headed toward the landing, but stopped when he saw the enforcement officers, and dived for cover behind an abandoned car. “I used my military training to use my rifle butt to break the fall, but when I hit the ground, the gun went off,” he said. “Then my hand slipped from the rifle and I cut it on a broken bottle.”
At the sound of the shot, officers on the two boats dived for cover and began motoring blindly down the river, right past Frank.
As Frank was unloading his catch, the county sheriff and a half-dozen deputies arrived at the landing with lights and sirens. Urging calm, he noticed Adams’ bleeding hand and provided first aid, then left with his deputies. “That day Billy was able to hang on to his fish and his nets, but that wasn’t usually the case,” Adams said.
The treaty rights struggle began long before the Fish Wars of the 20th Century, Frank said. “They knew what they had to do. They lived here. This is their home. They knew that’s our food that comes up the river.”
It was the testimony of elders during the U.S. v. Washington trial that helped clinch Boldt’s ruling, said professor Charles Wilkinson, an Indian law expert who teaches at the University of Colorado.
“Most spoke in their own languages. Judge Boldt, ruling on the basis of justice in its most luminous dimensions, accepted the elders’ testimony and took it into consideration. The elders’ testimony brought the whole story together,
“The truest and most profound fact about the Boldt decision is that it was conceived and accomplished by Indian people. The transcendent meaning of the Boldt decision was to uphold the treaty rights of Northwest tribes, but it was also a national case about national obligations and values. The decision was a gift to all of America.
“It was stamped with a kind of courage that few judges are ever asked to summon,” he said.
“Along with Brown versus Board of Education (a landmark civil rights case striking down segregation) and very few other cases, the Boldt decision stands as one of the highest and finest examples in the nation’s long history concerning what America and its citizens can accomplish in the name of justice for dispossessed people,” Wilkinson said.
Stuart Pierson, then a young assistant U.S. Attorney in Seattle, argued the Boldt case for the federal government. He described himself as “a privileged kid looking for excitement in trial work.”
In 1968 he was sent to Mississippi to help enforce civil rights. He was shocked at what he saw. “I watched people like me brutalize African-Americans,” he said. “I found that the law could be an effective instrument for minorities who had written rights that were not only never realized, but constantly trampled upon.
I came out (to Seattle) to prosecute the bad guys, but ended up working for the good guys,” he said.
Alan Stay was a young attorney who represented 10 tribes in the U.S. v. Washington proceedings. Even after Boldt issued his ruling in 1974 there was continued strife, he said.
“Unfortunately, the state of Washington was unable to recognize that it had lost the case,” he said. It wasn’t until Boldt’s ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979 that the state began to realize it needed to work together with tribes.
“The best thing that has happened to the salmon in the state of Washington was the Boldt decision,” said Bill Wilkerson, director of the state department of Fish and Wildlife in the early 1980s. “When we started to show up together, we actually had power. We were powerful enough to get a 96-0 vote in the Senate to ratify the U.S./Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty in 1985.” The treaty governs fisheries shared by the two countries.
Younger generations of tribal members need to pay attention to the teachings of the past, said attorney Patricia Zell, who served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during a 1977 investigation of the state of Washington in the aftermath of the Boldt ruling.
“Your greatest challenge is the ongoing challenge to address the level of ignorance about Indian people. That ignorance continues today and is alive and well in Congress. Each time a new member comes in, that education has to begin anew.”
Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, remembered fishing as a child with her parents and grandparents. “I couldn’t imagine myself, my being, my spirit separated from that very sacred right. It’s who we are as Indian people,” she said.
“The United States sought to assimilate us, terminate us, destroy us, take away our culture, our language, take away our ability to do just basic things like hunt and fish. But that spirit lies in all of us, that spirit of strength.”Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, said that all tribes seek a brighter future for following generations. “A future of limitless possibilities, to live the life passed down from generation to generations, to walk the banks of the river, to get in the boats, lay out the nets and pull in that salmon like our elders have done since time immemorial, and to pass that on to our children and grandchildren.”
While tribes gathered to celebrate Boldt’s ruling, they also gathered to honor Judge Boldt himself.
“Although dad was known as a very strict judge, brooking no nonsense on the bench, he was the opposite at home. He was a wonderful, fun-loving, caring and involved father,” said his daughter, Virginia Riedinger. “He never wavered from his belief that his decision was right and just.”
That memory was shared by Dr. Richard Whitney, a University of Washington professor who served as Boldt’s technical advisor from 1974-79.
“He was a genuine hero. He was determined to implement his decision and he knew that his decision was right. When the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed his decision, I went to call on him and talk a little about it. All he said was: ‘I thought I was right, and as it turned out, I was.’”