Remembering the trial

Charles Wilkinson, Distinguished Professor and Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado Law School, and author of 14 books on Indian law and history, described the U.S. v. Washington trial.


Through the proceedings, Judge Boldt came to know and feel a high respect for an industrious people who would never surrender their rights to harvest the seas, forests and meadows. He could see how the United States could have concluded that treaty-making with these nations was appropriate.

In 1970, Judge Boldt knew almost nothing about native sovereignty or culture. It was the native people at the council tables, on the river and on the shores who had the strategy, vision and fierce determination to wage a fierce campaign that at the beginning seemed impossible to everyone but themselves.

Outstanding attorneys, first-rate archaeologists, historians and scientists brought compelling facts into the courtroom and they testified for the tribes. Throughout the trial, Indian people kept silent vigil on the wooden benches in the gallery or standing against the wall of the packed courtroom. Tribal elders tool the stand and offered their accounts about aboriginal times, the treaties and the more recent times. Most of them spoke in their own languages and their testimony was based on the rich and accurate oral tradition.

Judge Boldt accepted the elders’ testimony and took that evidence into consideration and listened raptly as they spoke. Ask anyone who witnessed that trial, the elders brought the whole story together, and Judge Boldt listened open-mindedly to the case.

Federal judges have to be especially vigilant in protecting what the court has called prejudice against discrete and insular communities. Two opposite notions — majority rule and minority rights — are main building blocks of our constitution. Judges are in the best position to stand up for dispossessed people when majorities come down on minorities.

In the days of the Boldt decision, and appeals, federal judges as a whole took seriously their duty to protect rights of dispossessed people.

The transcendent meaning of the Boldt decision was to uphold the treaty rights of the northwest tribes. It also is a national case, about national obligations and values. The decision was a gift to America.

The decision recognized that the treaties remained in full force, that treaties were supreme over state laws. Tribes were entitled to exclusive fishing rights on reservation and entitled to take 50 percent in their usual and accustomed areas off reservation.

Judge Boldt ruled that the tribes were sovereign governments and had the right to be regulators of the resource.

Your forebears passed the Boldt decision onto you. Now you can preserve it and other values. You can do it, the Boldt decision proves that you can.

Morning Speakers: Personal stories from the Boldt Era


Hank Adams, left, Ramona Bennett and Billy Frank Jr. address the Boldt 40 celebration.


Ramona Bennett, chairwoman of the Puyallup Tribe at the time of the Boldt decision

“With the help of all those various good Indian people and good other people, we were able to get the attention that we needed. The timing was everything. It was during the peace strikes. The civil rights movements. There was change going on. And we got to be part of that change.”

“We went to court. The day I heard about decision. I had my feet up on my desk and when I got the decision phone call, I jumped up and ended up in my wastebasket and yelled, ‘We lost 50% of our fish!’” (Crowd laughs)

Leo LaClair – Muckleshoot Tribe

“Hank Adams was one of our guys who got the press releases and media out there. An idea of the National Indian Youth Council was taking the treaty from Seattle to the governor in Olympia. Wow, that’s a long paddle. We made it. Our objective was to get national attention with Hank Adams and it worked.”

Gilbert Kinggeorge – Muckleshoot Tribe

Re: The 1855-56 treaties:

“The old teaching – never say no to a relative. Again, I spoke earlier how history seems to repeat itself. There were only four tribes that responded. In that time of need, Chief Leschi rode back to visit every tribe in here in the state asking for help to come support us in the first treaty war. You could tell what the response was. Again, here we were with the second treaty war, called the Salmon Wars, Boldt Decision. Nevertheless, we are a proud people because those struggles opened the way for everyone to participate with their treaty rights.”

“We have nothing to be ashamed of. The tribes are champions of habitat.”

Hank Adams – Assiniboine Sioux

“We’ve lost many of the Indian people who love the land and the waters so much to this life of fishing and to this life on the waters and to this life on the land.”

“There are many elements to this fight. There are many generations that have made this fight.”

“This crowd would have been larger if there hadn’t been a (Seahawks Super Bowl) parade today. This crowd would have been at least this large if this had been a potlach in the 1880s or 1890s. This isn’t a big crowd compared to what the Indian crowds were at potlatches were 125 years ago. It wasn’t uncommon to see 1,800 canoes on Commencement Bay. For each canoe, you had a multiple number of people. In 1853, coming from Tacoma/Fort Nisqually to Olympia – Ezra Meeker looked out on the Nisqually and saw Indians of all ages and sexes harvesting their catch, which would have been august, king salmon. There were good numbers involved in this life that the Indian people lead.”

“Frank Law was a S’Klallam who went to Puyallup Industrial School. They played the first Thanksgiving Game in 1898 against University of Washington’s football team. And the Indian school won.

At Christmas, they had to return for what is called the championship of the PNW. PIS and UW – when the Indian team arrived in Seattle – UW said they wouldn’t take the field if Frank Law played since he’d play some semi-pro basketball pick up games. And he beat them in the first game. So they benched him. And UW narrowly won the championship game. Those are the first two games of UW football history.”

“Part of the joke at the time was if you just leave it up to us Montanians, we’ll settle this issue. Thankfully Boldt did and for the long term.”

Boldt 40: a day of perspectives on the Boldt Decision

boldt-40-v2The treaty tribes in western Washington will come together on February 5, 2014 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Boldt Decision.

Boldt 40 will be held at the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Skookum Event Center north of Olympia. Map:

Speakers will take attendees through the history of the case and the development of co-management.

Charles Wilkinson will give a lunchtime keynote address: “Justice at its Truest and Finest: The High Place of the Boldt Decision in American Law.” Wilkinson is Distinguished Professor and Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado Law School. He is the author of “Messages from Frank’s Landing: A Story of Salmon, Treaties.”