Hank Adams was born in the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana on May 16, 1943. The specific place he was born was called Wolf Point, but had the nickname of Poverty Flats. While growing up, Adams worked as fruit and vegetable picker to help support himself. While he was attending Moclips High School, from which he graduated in 1961, he worked in a sawmill on the reservation. This installed a good work ethic in Adams he would come to use throughout the rest of his life. After he graduated from high school, Adams became interested in politics. In 1964, Adams helped organize the march on Olympia in Washington State which had the purpose of protesting the state attack on Indian treaty fishing rights.
Adams whole life has been spent trying to better the lives of Native Americans. While he was in college he spent much of his time on the Quinault Reservation helping to fix a suicide problem they had there. After dropping out of college to be more involved in bettering Indian affairs, he became Special Projects Director of the National Indian Youth Council, a student organization that was one of the most radical Native American institutions of the time.
Activism and self-determination
In April, 1964 Adams made a name for himself by refusing to go into the United States Army unless traditional Indian treaty rights were accepted and recognized by the government; however, this rebellion was not a success and Adams ended up having to serve in the army. Adams took the role of the leader of the Survival of American Indians Association in 1968. The association was a collection of around 200 members devoted to the cause of protecting Indian fishing rights. Near the end of 1968, Adams got more directly involved in the struggle. He fought against state fishing regulations on the Nisqually River in Washington, and for his actions he was arrested often between 1968 and 1971. He was shot in the stomach while he was on protesting on the river, but continued in the struggle for Indian fishing rights in Washington until the issue was resolved and Indians were able to maintain their practices in the 1970s.
When members of the American Indian Movement occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington in 1972 (the Trail of Broken Treaties protest), Adams created a Twenty Point Proposal which the Nixon administration considered in exchange for AIM evacuating the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This included giving the tribes treaty-making authority, providing judicial acceptance of the Native American right to interpret treaties, and abolishing laws which threatened Indian sovereignty and life. While this was not accepted, it still stands as a landmark of Native American self-determination. Adams leadership ability and commitment to the Native American cause helped change government policy and ultimately led to more sovereignty and power for Indian tribes.
Adams was instrumental in saving Indian lives in two of the major Red Power movements of the early 1970s. During the Bureau of Indian Affairs building takeover, Adams was the main negotiator on behalf of the Indians holed up in the building. He was vital in bringing amnesty to the table during negotiations with the White House for the events that occurred during the takeover. One year later he was, again, instrumental in resolving the next major Red Power movement, the occupation of Wounded Knee.
At Wounded Knee incident, Adams helped to successful end the occupation in a peaceful manner. He was the intermediary between the head of the Lakota Occupation, Frank Fools Crow and the White House. The lead White House aide in both of these events even said: “Hank Adams' role in the peaceful resolution of some very difficult problems is still vividly clear in my mind.”. Adams worked mainly behind the scenes on both of these issues, but his role is as important, if not more, than anyone involved in either occupation. Adams wisely said of his work: Some of the things you prevent from happening are as important as many of the things you are able concretely to achieve,”.
In order to heighten awareness of the treaty disputes in the Northwest over fishing, Adams produced a documentary entitled “As Long As The River Runs” between 1968 and 1970. The film was shown to those holed up in the BIA Building in Washington D.C. and the graphic scenes it depicted of police dragging women Indians during fishing protests in the Northwest. This film enticed the Indians at the BIA to be even more paranoid of the police who had circled the building. He dedicated this film to his sister-in-law who died while protesting fishing rights in the Northwest.
Hank Adams helped to research information critical in affirming the Boldt Decision that agreed Native Americans had the right to fish in the waters of the Northwest that had been the center of many of Adams’ protests. With the help of Billy Frank Jr., the Native American face of the decision, Adams played a major behind-the-scenes job like he had at Wounded Knee and the BIA takeover. Adams continues to work with issues surrounding the Boldt Decision to this day.
Hank Adams is considered by many in the Indian Community as one of the most influential people in the movement. Leonard Garment, the lead White House aide in both the BIA and Wounded Knee, said of Adams: "Hank Adams' role in the peaceful resolution of some very difficult problems is still vividly clear in my mind."  Vine Deloria, Jr., one of the most influential Native American writers, said Adams was the most important Indian of the last 60 years. His activist career slowed with age.
- Hank Adams Papers at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University
- Hank Adams wins Indian Country Today's American Indian Visionary Award
- Honoring an American Indian Visionary, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer