This story is a little long, but it summarizes one of the most important days (in my opinion) in Muckleshoot history: the date when Judge George Boldt, US District Court (Tacoma) ruled to uphold the rights of several Washington Treaty Tribes to fish off their reservations and the rights to half the harvestable catch of salmon and steelhead. Be Proud, Muckleshoot people: it can sometimes take only one courageous person to change the world, because it was the right things to do!
The greatest anniversary for Federally Recognized Tribes in Washington State is coming up fast: Feb. 12th, when in 1974 the “Boldt Lightning” struck in the form of a bow-tie wearing judge in a Tacoma federal courtroom who would issue a ruling heard ‘round the world. That ruling by Federal Judge George Boldt would solidify tribal rights to fish – off-reservation in our usual and accustomed areas – sustaining our lifestyle of thousands of years before so-called pioneers arrived here and started claiming the land as their “discovery.”
It is no surprise that registration is at capacity for the 50th anniversary of the Boldt decision a celebration being hosted at our own Muckleshoot Casino Resort. This story goes back to the sleight of hand by Washington Territory’s first governor, Isaac Stevens, who created “treaties” with tribes to provide new Indian reservations. Indigenous people ceded millions of acres of their land, the treaties acknowledged Native American rights to fish, hunt and gather as they always had.
When private fishing fleets and canneries became the industry of the decade of a fast-growing Pacific Northwest, and as dams were built that limited salmon spawning, the salmon population numbers started dwindling. So, in the decline, who do you suppose is the first to lose their salmon? Native American yields of fish at the time were between 3% and 6%; non-native industrial fishing – over 90%.
Of course, as we moved into the 1960’s, the fight began: calls to end guaranteed – or even-allowed fishing for indigenous peoples began in bloody earnest. Nisqually Tribal member Billy Frank, Jr. and many others including Muckleshoot fishers would be arrested dozens of times. Tribal members were beaten, had their fishing boats and nets destroyed in front of them and their families, and were dragged away from longtime fishing camps.
After Judge Boldt’s decision, his effigy was hung from the doors of the federal court from where he ruled. The reactions from non-native fishers was swift, often violent and divisive to say the least. Kids were afraid to go to school. Parents were afraid to send them. I was one of those kids who experienced hateful discriminatory name calling as a child on the school playground and on the school bus!
However, in 1978, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed Boldt's decision, slamming the outrage against the Boldt decision. Circuit Judge Alfred Goodwin wrote: "Except for some desegregation cases ... this district court (Boldt’s) has faced the most concerted official and private efforts to frustrate a decree of a federal court witnessed in this century.”
Enter Slade Gorton, WA State Attorney General who insisted the decision granted “special” rights, violating the equal protection clause of the Constitution. He appealed the decision -- again, but this time to the Supreme Court. In its ruling in 1979, the nation's highest court affirmed the decision once and for all.
A hundred thousand words have been written about this valiant and life-changing ruling by George Boldt – and an even newer book by renowned local author Charles Wilkinson was recently released, entitled “Treaty Justice: The Northwest Tribes The Boldt Decision, and the Recognition of Fishing Rights” (University of Washington Press, January 2024). It’s a brilliant recollection of what it took to win our freedom to be us!
Wilkinson, a great documenter of history, was asked by Billy Frank, Jr., to write the Boldt ruling history. Given the 50th Anniversary Celebration on February 6-7 at Muckleshoot, he was driven to finish it and I suggest you get a copy. Billy would be proud of you for reading it, as he is featured throughout.
And as we meet at the Muckleshoot Casino Resort to recognize and honor our most important anniversary, let me explain that Wilkinson was determined to get the book finished before he passed. He was 81 last year before he died: Manuscript delivered!
Be Proud Honorable Muckleshoot People!
— John Daniels, Jr.
The Muckleshoot Messenger is a Tribal publication created by the Muckleshoot Office of Media Services. Tribal community members and Tribal employees are welcome to submit items to the newspaper such as news, calendar items, photos, poems, and artwork.