The 40th anniversary of the Boldt Decision was celebrated last week at the Squaxin Island Tribe’s event center.
— Curtis Tanner (@Oly_CT) February 5, 2014
Below are a handful of news reports marking the 40th anniversary of Boldt.
The court ruling Boldt handed down 40 years ago this week is a decision now recognized as one of the most sweeping documents of economic and social reform in Pacific Northwest history.
The central question in United States v. Washington concerned tribal fishing rights, but ripples from the decision went far and wide.
It changed the empty concept of “tribal sovereignty” into something that needed to be taken seriously — or else. And it transformed the way state and tribal governments interact.
For Washington Indian tribes, it marked the beginning of a renaissance, fueled by money, power and pride.
For four decades, the Boldt Decision has shaped political issues in Washington, from those that are purely tribal-based — gambling, tribal sales of cigarettes and gasoline, and tribal law enforcement, for example — to broadly based issues that involve environmental regulation and land use throughout the state.
The decision had consequences for native tribes not only in Western Washington but also throughout the United States — and to some extent for indigenous people around the world.
“People from New Zealand and Australia come to ask us, ‘How did you do this?’ ” said Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually fisherman made famous by the case. “How did you get the United States government to be on your side?”
A chair sat empty on the stage of the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Skookum Creek Event Center near Shelton last Wednesday in front of several hundred Western Washington Indians who gathered to celebrate the Boldt Decision, a federal court ruling issued Feb. 12, 1974, affirming their treaty rights to half of the region’s harvestable salmon.
The chair honored tribal warriors who fought in the Puget Sound Indian Wars of 1855-56. Those warriors deserve credit for helping secure South Sound tribal reservations that are far larger than those initially granted with the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1855, noted Muckleshoot tribal elder Gilbert King George.
Flash forward more than 100 years from the treaty wars and a new generation of South Sound tribal warriors fought for the right to harvest fish from their ancestral grounds, a right embedded in the 19th century treaties their forbearers and the federal government signed. Chalk it up as another victory, King George suggested.
“We are still winning,” he said, referring to salmon habitat restoration projects such as Elwha Dam removal on the Olympic Peninsula and recovery of the Nisqually Delta estuary, which wouldn’t have happened without the force of law the Boldt Decision provided.
Billy Frank Jr. was one of those fishermen who spent much of his youth in jail.
Today he is a celebrated leader who is respected by leaders of the same government that once imprisoned him.
Frank shared his table at a Boldt Anniversary Party near Shelton today with EPA Deputy Administrator, Bob Perciasepe who made a one day trip to Washington State to help Frank celebrate.
The two discussed a government commitment to curb climate change that threatens the salmon populations of the future.
But this day was mostly reserved for looking back at the sacrifices made by Frank and dozens of other demonstrators who wouldn’t give up their rights to the rivers and the salmon.
Our respective “share” of the state’s salmon has long been dictated by an infamous, split-the-baby formula established 40 years ago this week by a federal judge named George Hugo Boldt. Back then, in the face of salmon wars that ultimately escalated into gunfire, he used a 19th-century dictionary definition of the treaty term “in common with” to mean “equal,” as in, tribes were legally entitled to half the state’s harvestable salmon returning to “traditional waters.” It was one of the most spectacular plot twists in the history of U.S. resource management.
That was 1974, and I was not quite 11 years old. Perhaps because it has been the law of the land for all my memory, I have never wasted much time questioning the Boldt decision’s fairness. In a local newspaper career of nearly 30 years, including a decade working as this publication’s outdoors reporter, I’ve written frequently about fisheries issues, often defending that treaty right in opinion pieces — frequently to the rabid consternation of some sport-fishing friends.