Boldt Decision: 50th Anniversary

February 9, 2024 // Carson Meacham

On February 12, 1974, a landmark legal decision affirmed and protected Tribal fishing rights to the waters of the Pacific Northwest—rights that Tribes had retained since time immemorial.

In the early 1850s, multiple treaties were signed between Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens and regional Native American Tribes. These treaties ceded traditional lands to the United States amidst large imbalances in power and poor translation of the treaties themselves. In exchange, the Tribes received parcels of land as reservations, as well as promises of medicine, money and education. Significantly, Tribes also reserved their right to fish, gather, collect shellfish, and hunt at their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

In the 1960s, western Washington Tribes led campaigns to assert their reserved rights. This included “fish-ins” on the Puyallup River led by Robert Satiacum and Billy Frank Jr., who defied Washington State attempts to regulate their fishing. It also included legal challenges, as local Tribes sued to block state regulation that violated their reserved treaty rights.

50 years ago, federal judge George Boldt issued a historic ruling reaffirming the rights of Washington’s Tribes to fish in their accustomed places. The “Boldt Decision,” which allocates 50% of the annual catch to treaty Tribes, was upheld by subsequent litigation. That court decision also protected Tribes’ rights to co-manage and protect critical habitat.

The 50th anniversary of the Boldt decision is on February 12, 2024, and there are numerous events, news articles, and opportunities to learn more about this momentous affirmation of Tribal fishing rights.

Anniversary Events:

February 6-7 NW Treaty Tribes: US. v. WA: 50th Anniversary

The Northwest Treaty Tribes and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission present two full days of events and programming, including a presentation of Treaty Justice by Charles Wilkinson’s family; a screening of Fish War, a documentary produced by NWIFC and North Forty Productions; and a series of panels reflecting on the impact of the Boldt Decision.

February 10–September 1 Washington State Historical Society: Usual and Accustomed Grounds.

This exhibition focuses on the story of the Native fishing rights movement in Washington State and marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Boldt Decision. Through artifacts, photos, and footage, learn about how tribal people and nations resisted termination policies and fought for treaty-protected fishing access, cultural survival, and sovereignty—with impacts still felt today.

February 12, 7:30 p.m. Town Hall Seattle: Boldt at 50: Reflecting on Treaty Justice and Tribal Sovereignty

Centered around Charles Wilkinson’s posthumously acclaimed work, Treaty Justice, a panel will discuss the significance of the Boldt Decision and its enduring impact on the tribal sovereignty movement in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

March 30, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Washington State Historical Society: Symposium: The Boldt DecisioUnited States District Court Judge George H. Boldt (1903-1984) Courtesy Washington Secretary of Staten at 50

WSHS is hosting a symposium exploring the history of this ruling that served as an affirmation of Tribal fishing rights and sovereignty. Guests will also have the rare opportunity to view the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek.

Tribal Resources about Boldt Decision

Northwest Treaty Tribes Website, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube

Northwest Treaty Tribes video: The Boldt Decision Explained

News Articles about the Anniversary

Northwest Treaty Tribes / Ed Johnstone: Statue of Bille Frank Jr. reminds us to tell our story

The Olympian / Willie Frank III: 50th anniversary of Boldt Decision is a ‘good time to be alive’ for Nisqually community

The Northern Light Ed Johnstone: Op-Ed: Billy Frank Jr. statue unveiled 50 years after Boldt decision

Daily Astorian / Ed Johnstone: Guest Column: Room to improve collaboration with tribes

The Bellingham Herald / Ed Johnstone: Opinion: Salmon management must build on the lessons of the past 50 years

Salish Current / Richard Arlin Walker: Tribes 101: About the Native nations that share geography with Washington state

Salish Current / Richard Arline Walker: 50 years after Boldt Decision: new and lingering challenges to salmon recovery

Opportunities to learn more about the Boldt Decision

425 Magazine: ‘Lightning Boldt,’ A New Biography from the State’s Chief Historian

Seattle Times: A legal historian’s book captures the continuing impacts of the Boldt Decision

University of Washington School of Law: A 50-year Legacy of Excellence

Washington Secretary of State: Remembering Boldt Decision 40 years later

United States v. Washington Case Decision

University of Washington Case Law Library: United States. v. Washington

All News