The Legislature has an opportunity to make amends for the state’s heavy-handed actions during the legendary 1960s Fish Wars, in which tribal fishing rights activists were jailed, even shot, during demonstrations of civil disobedience.
House Bill 2080 would vacate the criminal convictions, under certain conditions, of individuals arrested while asserting their treaty rights to fish for salmon at off-reservation locations.
Those demonstrations led to the 1974 decision by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt — later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — that reaffirmed tribal-treaty rights to an equal share of harvestable salmon and steelhead, and made the tribes co-managers of the resource.
Although the proposed legislation doesn’t use the word, its passage would constitute an overdue apology to treaty tribal members, such as South Sound legend Billy Frank Jr., who were fighting for their rights.
It’s not a reach to compare the impact Frank and other South Sound activists had on reaffirming tribal treaty fishing rights to Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy on civil rights or Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid. The Fish Wars were related to the larger civil rights movement of the time, drawing wide support from many people, including celebrities such as Marlon Brando.
Frank’s crusade for fishing rights on his native Nisqually River began at age 14, and expanded to encompass American Indian rights nationwide. His leadership earned him the 1991 Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism and the 2010 Robert Marshall Award from the Wilderness Society, its highest honor.
“Billy’s success on behalf of the tribes of the Northwest is legendary … and it all started with Bill Frank,” said The Wilderness Society in presenting the award.
Frank continues, at age 82, to chair the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a coalition of treaty tribes formed after the Boldt decision to co-manage the fish and shellfish resource with the state.
The Fish Wars activists accomplished more than reaffirming their treaties with the federal government. They campaigned for salmon enhancement measures, and argued the treaties required the state to protect salmon habitat — another right upheld by the courts in 2007.
The Fish Wars also led to stricter logging regulations, such as the requirement to leave shading buffers along waterways and a recent court order for the state Department of Transportation to remove or correct culverts that block fish migration routes.
The state can’t take back how law enforcement authorities treated activists such as Frank and Yelm’s Hank Adams, but it can clear their criminal records as an admission of wrongdoing.
As the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, says, “We as a state have a very dark past, and we need to own up to our mistakes.”
Next month will mark the 40th anniversary of the landmark federal Bodlt decision. It’s time to admit that grave injustices were committed by the state and to make amends for them.