United States v. Washington

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United States v. Washington, 384 F. Supp. 312 (W.D. Wash. 1974), was a 1974 court case that reaffirmed the right of most Washington tribes to act as "comanagers", alongside the state, of salmon and continue to harvest it. The case was decided by Judge George Hugo Boldt of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington.[1] In 1975 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Boldt's ruling, and on July 2, 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court largely affirmed it in Washington v. Washington State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Ass'n (Fishing Vessel). Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the opinion of the court, writing that "Both sides have a right, secured by treaty, to take a fair share of the available fish."[2]

Historical background[edit]

For many years preceding the Boldt decision, the state of Washington had attempted to limit the treaty fishing rights of the tribes. The federal government filed suit in the support of Native American civil rights. Non-Native-American fishermen in the state opposed the decision.[3]


Specifically, the court held that, when the tribes conveyed millions of acres of land in Washington State through a series of treaties signed in 1854 and 1855, they reserved the right to continue fishing. For example, the Treaty of Medicine Creek (1854) mentions that "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". Most of the treaties negotiated by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens included very similar language.

At the same time, Judge Boldt denied landless tribes like the Samish, Snoqualmie, Steilacoom, and Duwamish both federal recognition and treaty rights.[4]

The court looked at the minutes of the treaty negotiations to interpret the meaning of the treaty language "in common with" as the United States described it to the Tribes, holding that the United States intended for there to be an equal sharing of the fish resource between the Tribes and the settlers. As the court stated, the phrase means "sharing equally the opportunity to take fish...therefore, nontreaty fishermen shall have the opportunity to take up to 50% of the harvestable number of fish...and treaty right fishermen shall have the opportunity to take up to the same percentage".


United States v. Washington was a landmark case in terms of Native American civil rights and evoked strong emotions. According to former U.S. Representative Lloyd Meeds of Everett, "the fishing issue was to Washington state what busing was to the East" during the African-American Civil Rights Movement.[5] In fact, the reaction to the case was so strong—on both sides—that Judge Boldt was forced to hold court six days a week, including on the Labor Day holiday; 49 experts and tribal members testified.[4] United States v. Washington truly "revolutionized the state fisheries industry" and there were "violent clashes between tribal and non-tribal fishermen and regulators". For example, 60 Native Americans and their supporters were arrested in Tacoma during a "fish‑in" (these began in 1964) on the Puyallup River. Principles established by United States v. Washington have since been applied to other natural resources, including shellfish.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Treaties". Member Tribes > Treaties. Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. 
  2. ^ Washington v. Fishing Vessel Assn., 443 U.S. 658, 684-685 (U.S. 1979) (“Nontreaty fishermen may not rely on property law concepts, devices such as the fish wheel, license fees, or general regulations to deprive the Indians of a fair share of the relevant runs of anadromous fish in the case area. Nor may treaty fishermen rely on their exclusive right of access to the reservations to destroy the rights of other "citizens of the Territory." Both sides have a right, secured by treaty, to take a fair share of the available fish. That, we think, is what the parties to the treaty intended when they secured to the Indians the right of taking fish in common with other citizens.”).
  3. ^ "United States v. Washington 235 F.3d 438 (9th Cir. 2000)". Native American Issues Cases > Case Summaries. Lewis & Clark Law School. Retrieved 30 August 2012. 
  4. ^ Tizon, Alex (7 February 1999). "The Boldt Decision / 25 Years -- The Fish Tale That Changed History". Seattle Times. Retrieved 30 August 2012. 
  5. ^ "Commercial Shellfish Growers Settlement". About Us > Shellfish. Retrieved 30 August 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Text of the Boldt Decision: Hon. George H. Boldt, The Boldt Decision; PDF on the site of the Washington (state) Department of Fish and Wildlife