Reflecting on 50 years since the Boldt Decision

Reflecting on 50 years since the Boldt Decision

Puyallup Tribal News Staff


As we approach 50 years since the Boldt Decision on Feb. 12, it is a moment to reflect on the profound impact of this landmark ruling on Tribal fishing rights and sovereignty. In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt reaffirmed fishing rights as outlined in treaties like the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854. While the decision stands as one of the most significant cases in Native American law, it did not conclude the struggles many Tribes face today in protecting one of our most vital resources: salmon.

The Boldt Decision came after a lengthy and tumultuous fight. Tribal fishers have exercised their rights to fish on ancestral waterways since time immemorial. These rights, guaranteed by treaties signed in the mid-1800s, were meant to protect fishing, hunting and gathering rights, even as Tribes ceded much of their land.

The Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 was signed by the Puyallup people and eight other Tribal groups. It stated, “The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.”

Regardless of the treaty’s wording, the rights were not secured. Tribal men and women were arrested and assaulted by game wardens and local authorities who interpreted the treaties to confine Natives to fishing only on reservations.

By the 1960s and 1970s, tensions escalated leading to Natives and local activists adopting strategies inspired by the civil rights movement such as “sit-ins.” They began having “fish-ins.”  Brave fishers and allies camped along the Puyallup River for approximately one month. The camp grew by word of mouth. Allies armed themselves with rifles to help protect Natives as nets were cast into the river.

On Sept. 9, 1970, the camp was raided by game wardens, state patrol and SWAT teams. The confrontation became violent, with authorities using tear gas and beating Native fishers and their allies with clubs and batons. At one point, an activist threw a Molotov cocktail on a bridge to keep the authorities away. According to the Seattle Times, 60 people were arrested that day.

The turning point came after Stan Pitkin, a U.S. attorney for Western Washington, witnessed the violence on the Puyallup River. He filed paperwork that initiated the court ruling of U.S. v. Washington. The federal government sued the state, leading to a three-year trial with about 50 witnesses testifying.

Judge Boldt ruled that Tribes were entitled to 50 percent of all potential salmon and steelhead trout harvests. Furthermore, Tribes gained an equal voice in fisheries management alongside other government agencies. On the surface, 50 percent may seem like a win, but in reality, we lost 50 percent of what is rightfully ours.

Despite opposition from non-Native commercial and sport fishers – and resentment stirred up by the Washington Attorney General’s office – the decision stood. The opposition showed that Tribes would have to work hard to defend the decision and protect Tribal members’ right to fish.

Tribes continue the fight today. Fifty years later, concerns about declining fish populations persist due to environmental challenges such as warming waters, rising sea levels and pollution. Overpopulation of seals and sea lions are another threat. One outcome of the Boldt Decision was the growth of fish hatchery management. Today the Puyallup Tribe’s Fisheries Department has 11 facilities for salmon rearing.

Despite settling for 50 percent of the salmon, the struggle continues as the environment evolves, demanding continued efforts to protect Tribal fishing rights. Around the time of the Boldt Decision, several salmon species were placed on the endangered species list, a sign of their dire circumstances.

The battle to protect and preserve the habitat exists today.