Boldt decision has rippling effects 40 years later

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TACOMA, Wash. (AP) - George Hugo Boldt was not a man anyone would mistake for a revolutionary.

He was a bespectacled and conservative Republican, a former Army officer who grew up in Montana and kept his close-sheared haircut intact throughout the turbulent ‘60s and beyond.

Among his many conservative credentials, Boldt was known as the federal judge who in 1970 held a group of Vietnam War protesters called the Seattle Seven in contempt of court and sentenced them to prison for six months.

The only thing about Boldt that could be considered radical was his fondness for plaid sports jackets and bow ties.

And yet .

The court ruling Boldt handed down 40 years ago this week is a decision now recognized as one of the most sweeping documents of economic and social reform in Pacific Northwest history.

The central question in United States v. Washington concerned tribal fishing rights, but ripples from the decision went far and wide.

It changed the empty concept of “tribal sovereignty” into something that needed to be taken seriously - or else. And it transformed the way state and tribal governments interact.

For Washington Indian tribes, it marked the beginning of a renaissance, fueled by money, power and pride.

For four decades, the Boldt Decision has shaped political issues in Washington, from those that are purely tribal-based - gambling, tribal sales of cigarettes and gasoline, and tribal law enforcement, for example - to broadly based issues that involve environmental regulation and land use throughout the state.

The decision had consequences for native tribes not only in Western Washington but also throughout the United States - and to some extent for indigenous people around the world.

“People from New Zealand and Australia come to ask us, ‘How did you do this?’ ” said Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually fisherman made famous by the case. “How did you get the United States government to be on your side?”

The answer, said University of Washington fisheries professor Richard Whitney, who recently appeared with Frank for a filmed chat about the Boldt Decision in its 40th year, is that there was nothing radical about the ruling.

It was, in fact, a conservative reading, he said, a strict law-and-order interpretation entirely in keeping with Boldt’s character and his view of the law.

“It was one of the most significant decisions of the century,” Whitney said. “Not just because of the fishing situation, but because of the fact that a federal judge would look at the law and say, this is what the law requires, and everybody has to live up to it. Not just the tribes and not just the state, but everybody.

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