The Boldt Decision and Indian Fishing RightsThis is a featured page

University of Washington Libraries-Special Collections Image: William We-ah-lup smoking salmon and salmon eggs on Puget Sound 1906-Norman Edson collection No. 475
In the 1850s Governor Isaac Stevens established a series of treaties with native tribes that established a legal framework for European American settlement of lands traditionally occupied by Indian tribes. One of the concessions the tribes received in return was the right to continue to fish in their accustomed fishing places and to use customary fishing practices. As Washington’s population increased, large commercial and sports fisheries developed. As fish populations decreased, the State of Washington sought to regulate tribal fishing in the same way it regulated commercial and sport fishing. Tribal fishermen opposed this regulation as a violation of their treaty rights. In 1974 the United States sued the State of Washington on behalf of Indian tribes to uphold the letter and spirit of the treaties. The case was heard in U.S. District Court by Judge George Boldt.

Some key historical questions: What was the Judge’s decision? Why is this case always referred to as the “Boldt decision” rather than United States of America vs. the State of Washington (its official title)? How did native Indian Tribes protest against state regulation of their fisheries before the Boldt Decision? How successful were those protests? How have Indian tribes worked with the regulation of fisheries since the Boldt Decision? What impact has this decision had on tribal fishing rights? What impact has it had on the commercial and sports fisheries?

Be sure to consider other possibilities for historical questions as you analyze and interpret this topic.

Primary Sources

  • Northwest Ethnohistory Collection
  • RG 21 US District Court Civil Case Files - Tacoma, WA
  • RG 75 Bureau of Indian Affairs, Portland Area Office - Fishing Rights Files
  • RG 75 Bureau of Indian Affairs, multiple tribal records

  • Kenneth McLeod Papers
  • Isaac I. Stevens Papers
  • Regional Newspaper and Periodical Index

  • Attorney General - U.S. vs. State of Washington Files
  • Governor Ray's Papers - Subject and Correspondence Files
  • Department of Fisheries
  • Indian Affairs Files
  • Litigation Files
  • Federal Agency Records
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs Collections
  • Indian Treaties



  • Cecilia S. Carpenter Papers (MS 220)
  • Federal government reports estimating/summarizing the effects of the Boldt Decision
  • Clippings File: Indians - Treaties and Laws - Boldt Decision

  • News Articles
  • Photographs of Indian and Commercial Fishing Practices



Secondary Sources

Uncommon Controversy: An Inquiry into the Treaty-Protected Fishing Rights of the Muckleshoot, Puyallup, and Nisqually Indians of Puget Sound by American Friends Service Committee
To Fish in Common: The Ethnohistory of Lummi Indian Salmon Fishing by Daniel L. Boxberger
Treaties on Trial: The Continuing Controversy over Northwest Indian Fishing Rights by Fay G. Cohen
Messages from Frank's Landing: A Story of Salmon, Treaties, and the Indian Way by Charles F. Wilkinson

History Link: http://www.historylink.org/This_week/index.cfm Search on "Boldt" and "Indian Fishing Rights"


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