Charles Wilkinson on the History of the Boldt Decision

Charles Wilkinson on the History of the Boldt Decision

Charles F. Wilkinson and the University of Washington Press have published “Treaty Justice: The Northwest Tribes, the Boldt Decision, and the Recognition of Fishing Rights.”


In 1974, Judge George Boldt issued a ruling that affirmed the fishing rights and tribal sovereignty of Native nations in Washington State. The Boldt Decision transformed Indigenous law and resource management across the United States and beyond. Like Brown v. Board of Education, the case also brought about far-reaching societal changes, reinforcing tribal sovereignty and remedying decades of injustice.

Eminent legal historian and tribal advocate Charles Wilkinson tells the dramatic story of the Boldt Decision against the backdrop of salmon’s central place in the cultures and economies of the Pacific Northwest. In the 1960s, Native people reasserted their fishing rights as delineated in nineteenth-century treaties. In response, state officials worked with non-Indian commercial and sport fishing interests to forcefully—and often violently—oppose Native actions. These “fish wars” spurred twenty tribes and the US government to file suit in federal court. Moved by the testimony of tribal leaders and other experts, Boldt pointedly waited until Lincoln’s birthday to hand down a decision recognizing the tribes’ right to half of the state’s fish. The case’s long aftermath led from the Supreme Court’s affirmation of Boldt’s opinion to collaborative management of the harvest of salmon and other marine resources.

Expert and compelling, Treaty Justice weaves personalities and local detail into the definitive account of one of the twentieth century’s most important civil rights cases.