State Supreme Court issues a narrow ruling regarding treaty fishing rights in State of Washington v. Robert Satiacum on July 1, 1957.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 8/24/2020
  • Essay 2650
See Additional Media

On July 1, 1957, the Washington Supreme Court issues a narrow ruling that affirms Native American rights to fish at their usual and accustomed grounds. But the decision is a hollow one, because the central question of whether this fishing is subject to state regulation is left open. The defendant in the case, Robert Satiacum, is a colorful Puyallup tribal member who will later become a powerful tribal leader.

State v. Satiacum

When American settlers began settling Washington Territory in the 1850s, they entered into a series of treaties with various Native American tribes that affirmed Native rights to take fish at their "usual and accustomed" fishing grounds.  However, in the twentieth century the State of Washington began regulating when, where, and how Natives could fish, all in the interest of state conservation laws.

In 1953 members of the Puyallup Tribe began fishing the Puyallup River in increasing numbers, ignoring state regulations.  One of these members was Robert Satiacum (1929-1991), a large, gregarious man who enjoyed the limelight and didn't mind getting arrested; one Satiacum story recounts that when he went to trial after his first arrest (in 1949) for illegal fishing, he showed up at the courtroom with a war canoe. In November 1954 Satiacum and another Puyallup native, James Young, were arrested for net fishing during the off-season. They were convicted in Pierce County Justice Court and appealed the decision to the Pierce County Superior Court. After a new trial the court dismissed the case, stating that the state had failed to establish that the statutes violated were reasonable and necessary for fish conservation.

The state appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in February 1957. (In an interesting aside, Satiacum and Young were represented at the hearing by attorneys Malcom McLeod and Wing Luke [1925-1965]. Five years later, Luke became the first Asian-American elected to public office in Washington state when he was elected to the Seattle City Council.) On July 1, 1957, the court issued its ruling affirming the dismissal of the state's suit. In interpreting the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek (the applicable treaty to the Puyallup Tribe), the court found that the Natives had reserved their rights to fish at their usual and accustomed places regardless of state regulation, and that the treaty was superior to the state's power to regulate fishing at the places where the treaty was applicable.

Missed Opportunity

The decision lacked the impact that it could have had. Only eight judges on the court heard and decided the case, as the court's ninth judge was incapacitated. Four judges supported the decision that the treaty was superior to the state's power to regulate fishing. The court's other four judges concurred in the decision to dismiss the state's case, but they did so on different grounds. These judges agreed that the treaty should prevail, but only in this particular case. Interpreting the question narrowly, the judges said that the Puyallups -- and other tribes -- were not exempt from state regulation. Instead, these four judges said only that the state had failed to prove that the enforcement of state regulations against Satiacum and Young were reasonable and necessary for the conservation of fish.

The four-to-four decision on the issue of state vs. tribal sovereignty meant there was no majority decision in the case, which weakened its effect. Because there was no majority, there was no change to existing law. It remained legal for the state to regulate Native fishing, but for the next few years state officials did not aggressively do so, even as Natives continued to fish in defiance of the law. In the early 1960s the state began taking more action against the Puyallups and other Natives, who responded with well-publicized fish-ins. Satiacum led one such fish-in on the Puyallup River in March 1964 with actor Marlon Brando (1924-2004), which brought considerable attention to the growing movement.

The fish-ins grew increasingly violent as state officials continued to make arrests for illegal fishing, and in 1970 the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington brought the issue to a head when it filed United States v. State of Washington. The case was decided in 1974 by Judge Hugo Boldt and became known as "The Boldt Decision." Boldt not only affirmed that the treaty tribes had a right to take up to 50 percent of the catch which passed through their fishing grounds, but he made them co-managers of the state's fisheries. To say it was a big, and unexpected, decision is an understatement.


Satiacum remained in the spotlight during these years. Initially, his stature grew. In 1980, he was elected chairman of the Puyallup Tribal Council. But he had legal problems by this time, which worsened while he was in office. The tribe recalled Satiacum in 1982, about 10 days before he was indicted by a federal jury on charges of racketeering, trafficking in contraband cigarettes, and arson. He was convicted that November and fled to Canada, only to be captured in Saskatchewan about a year later. During his absence he was convicted in absentia of embezzling about $135,000 in tribal funds.

Satiacum was imprisoned in Canada until his application for political refugee status was granted in 1987. He was the first U.S. citizen to be granted political refugee status in Canada, but this was overturned by a Canadian appellate court in 1989. That same year, Saticum was convicted of molesting a 10-year-old girl. Ordered deported, he disappeared again. He was caught in British Columbia in March 1991, suffering from heart failure. Nevertheless, in an interview with The Seattle Times a few days after his arrest, he said he was ready to return to the United States to fight his convictions: "I'm not guilty of anything, but only trying to prove that the taxation there in (Washington) state was totally unfair, and I think I proved that ... I think I have a lot to say and a lot more to do" ("The Death Of ...").

Three days later, Saticum suffered a fatal heart attack while incarcerated in the Vancouver pre-trial detention center.


The Associated Press, "Robert Satiacum, Indian Leader and Fugitive, Dies in Canada," March 27, 1991, Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune website accessed July 22, 2020 (; Enos Bradner, "Court Cases Back Indians' Right to Unlimited Catches," The Seattle Times, March 21, 1961, p. 16; Peter Lewis, "Satiacum Wants to Return -- Puyallup Says He'd Fight Case," Ibid., March 23, 1991, p. A-1; Peter Lewis, "The Death of Bob Satiacum -- Hero and Antihero -- He Championed Rights But Ran Afoul of the Law," Ibid., March 26, 1991, p. A-1; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "United States v. State of Washington (the Boldt Decision)" (by Phil Dougherty), (accessed July 25, 2020); United States v. State of Washington, 384 F. Supp. 312 (W.D. Wash. 1974); State of Washington v. Robert Satiacum, et. al., 50 Wn2d 513 (1957). Note: This essay replaces and greatly expands upon an earlier entry on the same subject. 

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You