Debate and Diplomacy in the Indigenous Fight for Fishing Rights

  • By Andrew Da
  • Posted 8/31/2022
  • Essay 22551

Nearly 50 years have passed since U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt handed down his historic ruling affirming Native American fishing rights. In this originl essay written for National History Day by Andrew Da, a student at North Creek High School in Bothell, Da details the turbulent history of fishing rights in Washington and the broader implications of the Boldt Decision nationally. "I pieced together the story," he wrote, "realizing that this local fishing rights debate was tied to a broader national narrative — a widespread Indigenous rights movement that pressed the federal government to recognize treaties and treaty-protected tribal sovereignty ... Today’s freedom to exercise treaty-reserved fishing rights came at the cost of decades-long social debates, legal disputes, and civil disobedience. The triumph of regaining treaty rights through the Boldt Decision is not just a Northwest story: It pushed the national tribal sovereignty movement forward, propelling the restoration of tribal-federal diplomacy."

Sovereign Nations

"All treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land." — U.S. Constitution, Article VI.

From the first contact with European settlers, Native tribes have been recognized as sovereign nations. The United States maintains nation-to-nation diplomacy with tribes by signing treaties that carry the weight of the U.S. Constitution. Serving as the foundation of the diplomatic relationship between Native nations and the United States, these treaties were not a grant of rights to Indigenous peoples, but rather a reaffirmation of tribal sovereignty that far preexisted the U.S.

Between 1854 and 1856, on behalf of the federal government, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens negotiated a series of treaties with Native nations in the Pacific Northwest. Through these treaties, tribes ceded nearly 64 million acres of land in exchange for small reservations and monetary compensation. At the very least, Indigenous leaders retained what was non-negotiable — the right to fish in their ancestral waters. Despite treaty promises, Indigenous off-reservation fishing rights were repeatedly ignored and violated. Through decades-long social and legal debates, Northwest tribes — as small, vulnerable nations within a large, forceful entity — tenaciously and strategically fought to defend their sovereignty and way of life. The triumph of regaining treaty fishing rights through the Boldt Decision pushed the contemporary tribal sovereignty movement forward, turning a new page in the unique diplomatic relationship between Native nations and the U.S.

The Salmon People

With roots spanning thousands of years on the land, Northwest Indigenous peoples consider fishing their "fabric of life." For them, the Pacific salmon and the salmon-like steelhead trout are staple fish. Referring to themselves as Salmon People, tribes cherish their relationship with the sacred fish as a source of spiritual strength and physical nourishment. The livelihoods of Native fishermen depended upon the preservation of salmon runs: "Catch what you need and release what you don’t." Overfishing was never a problem.

Stevens Treaties: "This Paper Secures Your Fish"

Impelled by a belief in manifest destiny and lured by free land granted through the Donation Land Act, settlers poured into the Northwest in the mid-nineteenth century. To acquire land and resources, Governor Stevens negotiated treaties with Indigenous communities located near the Columbia Basin and Puget Sound of Western Washington. Aware of the importance of salmon to the tribes, Stevens promised to secure their fish. Beginning with the Medicine Creek Treaty in 1854, Stevens signed six treaties over two years — each containing a similar provision on Indigenous fishing rights: "The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians, in common with all citizens of the Territory."

Despite drafting the treaties in English, Stevens conducted discussions in Chinook jargon, a patchwork trading language with fewer than 500 words. Communications were translated between English, Chinook jargon, and Native languages. Along with language barriers, Indigenous culture lacked Western concepts of ownership, leaving enormous gaps for misunderstandings and misinterpretations. For years to come, varying interpretations of key treaty phrases sparked countless social and legal debates

Social Debates: Interpreting the Treaties

Initially, there was little conflict regarding fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest. Instead of fishing, settlers focused on logging, farming, and mining. In 1889, Washington Territory was admitted into the Union as a state. As more settlers arrived, the abundant salmon runs began to decline. Canning technologies drove the commercial fishing industry to harvest and preserve in larger quantities. Recreational sportsfishermen emerged in the 1920s, particularly favoring the steelhead. Moreover, dam-building, logging operations, and agricultural development degraded and destroyed salmon habitats.

Attempting to manage the declining resource, Washington enacted conservation regulations by enforcing license requirements, banning certain fishing gear, and limiting fishing seasons and locations. However, Native fishermen continued fishing as before, believing they were protected by their treaty rights. In 1934, Washington State passed Initiative 77, primarily prohibiting Native traditional fishing gear. Closely monitoring Native fishermen, the state forbade off-reservation fishing. Failing to address the underlying issues, these regulations ultimately forced Indigenous peoples — the actual victims of fishing competition — into a scapegoat for salmon depletion.

As demand for fish rapidly outpaced supply, different parties took disparate positions on treaty interpretations. For Native fishermen, treaties reserved their permanent right to fish at accustomed grounds. The key treaty phrase "in common with" implied that Native fishermen could continue fishing off-reservation undisturbed and unchanged, even with non-Native fishermen present. Meanwhile, non-Native fishermen believed the phrase meant Native fishermen had an equal but not superior right to fish. The state government interpreted the phrase to hold Native fishermen under nondiscriminating state fishing laws.

By the mid-twentieth century, Native fishermen caught only 6 percent of total fish. For them and their culture to survive, Indigenous peoples had to risk gear confiscation, arrest, and imprisonment to fish off-reservation. Simultaneously, accusations of Indigenous "illegal" fishing practices fueled negative sentiment. By the early 1960s, Northwest Native fishermen were consistently portrayed by the media as selfish, greedy, and anti-conservation. Facing daunting legal challenges, Indigenous Americans were rendered powerless against unjust government policies and growing public opposition.

Legal Debates: Revealing Inconsistent Tribal-Federal Policies

As tensions escalated, Northwest tribes undertook court debates to remedy broken treaty rights. Following the first legal settlement in 1887, court rulings on fishing disputes underwent repeated turnabouts. The 1905 U.S. v. Winans case ruled that the treaties should be interpreted from Indigenous understandings, affirming off-reservation fishing rights. In 1942, Tulee v. Washington vaguely indicated the state could regulate if "necessary for the conservation." Later, in 1963, Washington v. McCoy reinstated the state’s right to impose "reasonable and necessary regulations" on Native fishermen.

These fluctuating court decisions reflect inconsistent federal policies toward Native nations. The Dawes Act of 1887 divided reservations into plots of land for individual households, forcing Indigenous peoples to adopt American culture by becoming farmers. The 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to all Indigenous peoples, attempted to further assimilate them into American society. Contrarily, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 — part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal to alleviate poverty — recognized tribal self-government privileges, offering political liberties and economic benefits to Indigenous Americans. Beginning in the mid-1940s, however, the federal government backpedaled legislation on tribal affairs. Passing HCR-108 in 1953, Congress formally introduced "termination policy" to dissolve reservations and tribal sovereignty, forcing the assimilation of Indigenous Americans into mainstream society. Soon after, Congress passed Public Law 280, shifting tribal responsibility and jurisdiction from federal to state governments

Fish Wars: Turning the Tide on the Fishing Rights Debate

Indigenous Americans nationwide viewed termination policy as an alarming threat, not only to their territory and culture but to their political status as sovereign entities. From the 1940s to the 1960s, several new organizations — including the National Congress of American Indians, the American Indian Movement, and the National Indian Youth Council — challenged notions of racism, government overreach, and civil rights. Although these movements were politically ineffective, they elicited publicity about tribal affairs. As termination policy was further enforced, a group of young, college-educated Indigenous Americans, including Vine Deloria Jr. and Hank Adams, developed new political and legal strategies to halt termination, reject unilateralism, and reinstate tribal governance.

As public awareness of tribal affairs spread, movement leaders looked toward the Pacific Northwest fishing-rights cases for a breakthrough, targeting specific legal arguments on treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. At the time, Washington actively arrested Nisqually and Puyallup Native fishermen in Puget Sound, who were protected under the Medicine Creek Treaty. Inspired by the ongoing civil rights movement’s sit-ins, and threatened by increasing state jurisdiction, the tribes perceived the necessity of direct action, shifting from quiet persistence to open resistance. In 1964, Survival of the American Indian Association (SAIA), mostly consisting of Frank's Landing residents of the Nisqually Reservation, was founded to advocate for Northwest Indigenous fishing rights through civil disobedience. Supported by leaders from prominent national organizations, including NAACP Regional Director Jack Tanner, SAIA organized fish-ins in Puget Sound by continuing fishing in customary waters, effectively connecting their protests to civil rights movements across the nation.

To generate public support absent from previous conflicts, fish-ins emphasized coalitions with non-Native allies. Activists, including former Oregon Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse, went door-to-door informing people about the Constitution, broken treaties, and Indigenous struggles. Across the country, non-Native supporters stood up and advocated for the Puget Sound tribes. "They have little left," actor Marlon Brando asserted. "Everything has been taken from them." Garnering public support, Indigenous leaders and their allies paved the way to winning future debates through decisive rulings.

Through anti-compliance against state laws, Indigenous leaders pressured the federal government to act. "When they said you have no rights," SAIA head Hank Adams declared, "you prove you do by going back to the river." As one of the foremost leaders in the Northwest Fish Wars, Billy Frank Jr. continued exercising his treaty fishing rights despite 50 arrests. Frank’s home at Frank's Landing became ground zero for many, sometimes violent, confrontations. On September 9, 1970, the battle over fishing rights reached a dangerous climax. After protesters formed an armed force for self-protection along the Puyallup River, state police agents raided the encampment. Media coverage of officers brutally attacking Native protesters shocked the nation.

Fishing debates in Puget Sound were paralleled in Oregon’s Columbia Basin. Ruling on U.S. v. Oregon in 1969, Judge Robert Belloni affirmed Indigenous fishing rights in the Columbia Basin and introduced the concept of "fair share" without apportionment of harvestable catch. This critical court decision, along with growing public consciousness, helped turn the tide in favor of the tribes. After witnessing the Puyallup River confrontation, federal attorney Stan Pitkin filed a comprehensive lawsuit on September 18, 1970, against Washington State for violating treaty rights.

The Boldt Decision: Restoring Treaty Fishing Rights

After three years of testimonials and evidence examination, U.S. v. Washington commenced its trial on August 27, 1973. George H. Boldt, Federal District Court Judge in Tacoma, oversaw the case. Representing 14 Native nations, the U.S. government sued the State Department of Fisheries, the State Game Commission, and the Washington Reefnet Owners Association. During the trial, Washington State Attorney General Slade Gorton argued that, under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, Native fishermen had no special rights to fish off-reservation, claiming that state regulations in the interest of conservation were nondiscriminatory. Plaintiff tribes countered that Washington could not regulate their fishing at treaty locations, seeking a decision on off-reservation fishing rights and the division of harvestable catch.

On February 12, 1974, Boldt handed down his groundbreaking ruling — widely known as the Boldt Decision. Within the 203-page decision, Boldt construed that "all usual and accustomed grounds" meant "every fishing location where members of a tribe customarily fished," implying legal protection for Indigenous off-reservation fishing. Based on relevant historical definitions, Boldt determined that the crucial treaty phrase "in common with" meant "sharing equally." Concretizing Belloni’s "fair share" concept, Boldt announced a 50-50 allocation of harvestable fish between treaty and non-treaty fishermen. Recognizing the sovereign rights of tribes to regulate salmon harvest, Boldt instituted fishery co-management between tribes and the state. However, the Boldt Decision did not peacefully translate into social acceptance. The state sought to appeal, while non-Native fishermen reacted with enraged opposition. Even within Indigenous communities, some felt they should be awarded a greater-than-equal share. Unrest continued until a 6-3 decision in the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Boldt’s ruling in 1979.


The debate over who can fish, where to fish, and how much to fish endured for decades in the Pacific Northwest. The Stevens Treaties of the 1850s, as bilateral agreements between tribes and the U.S. government, lie at the heart of the controversy. Differing interpretations from tribes, the state, and non-Native fishermen escalated widespread debates about key treaty phrases. As the culmination of this long-standing debate, the 1974 Boldt Decision interpreted the treaties as the Indigenous leaders understood them, upholding Indigenous fishing rights and honoring American diplomatic commitment to Native nations.

The landmark ruling introduced the concept of co-management, elevating Indigenous political status and transforming government-tribal interactions. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission was created in 1974 to lead 10 Western Washington treaty tribes in their role as natural resource co-managers. For the first time in many decades, the state recognized tribes as independent sovereign governments, agreeing on cooperation instead of regulation. Promoting Indigenous participation, the co-management framework was adopted in future dispute resolution, such as the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty and the 1986 Timber Fish Wildlife Agreement. In the legal landscape, the Boldt Decision established a precedent for tribal sovereignty in Indigenous rights court cases both nationally and internationally.

Nevertheless, the Boldt Decision is still imperfect — particularly in the context of correcting a 100-year-old mistake. Only affirming treaty-recognized Indigenous fishing rights, the ruling resulted in non-treaty tribes losing access to all off-reservation fishing sites. Even within treaty tribes, those with greater capital took much higher salmon volumes than those without. Furthermore, the 50-50 allocation pushed many non-Native commercial fishermen out of business.

The Northwest fishing debate is not simply about fish, it epitomizes the Indigenous struggle for survival and determination for sovereignty. In the journey of defending their identity and rights, Indigenous peoples withstood arrest, imprisonment, and defamation. Applying political and legal strategies to sway public opinion, Indigenous leaders fostered awareness of treaties and treaty-recognized tribal sovereignty. Amplified by winning Northwest fishing rights cases, the national tribal sovereignty movement ultimately pressed the federal government to reform its policies toward Native nations. In 1975, Congress reversed termination policy and passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, reinstating the federal government’s treaty obligations to tribes and reaffirming tribal self-governance authority. Self-determination policy authorized tribes to contract with federal agencies to directly administer programs, such as resource management, healthcare, education, and environmental protection. Nowadays, tribal, state, and federal managers gather to coordinate Northwest salmon fishery operations called "North of Falcon." North of Falcon is not a win-lose debate; rather, it provides equal grounds for tribes and the U.S. government to plan Northwest fisheries and protect endangered salmon species together.

Despite being the supreme law of the land, treaties — as the foundation of diplomacy between Native nations and the United States — were broken for decades in the Pacific Northwest. Through unrelenting social debates, legal disputes, and civil disobedience, Northwest tribes fought for and regained their treaty-guaranteed fishing rights. Allying with national civil rights organizations, Northwest activists pushed the tribal sovereignty movement forward, propelling the restoration of tribal-federal diplomacy. The Northwest fishing rights debate reflects a painful era of American history: countless broken promises led to long-standing struggles and disputes. As this unique diplomacy evolves, conflict and controversy are inevitable.

Today, through government-mandated curricula, Washington commits to educating its citizens, particularly the youth, about treaty rights and Indigenous history. The nationwide practice of land acknowledgments recognizes the enduring relationship between Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories, while honoring their struggle and sacrifice. All Americans carry the responsibility of understanding and respecting treaties and treaty-protected tribal sovereignty. Only acceptance of the true history can prevent future broken promises and maintain the harmonious coexistence between Native nations and the United States.

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