In 1855-56, Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens negotiated a series of treaties with Indian tribes in what is now western Washington. Treaties are legally binding contracts and are the supreme law of the land under the United States Constitution.
The federal government recognized the tribes as sovereign nations and the rightful owners of all the land in the region. Tribes agreed to give up the land but reserved certain rights to ensure their cultures would survive. Among them were the rights to fish, hunt and gather shellfish,
among other activities. In western Washington, 20 tribes were signatories to the so-called Stevens Treaties.
Those rights were forgotten in the years that followed as the state of Washington took control of salmon harvests and systematically denied the tribes the ability to exercise their treaty reserved rights. Only after years of protests and civil disobedience by the tribes were their treaty rights acknowledged by federal courts.
The 1974 ruling in U.S. v. Washington (the Boldt Decision) re-affirmed the rights reserved by the tribes in the original treaties and established the tribes as co-managers of the salmon resource with the state. Subsequent federal court rulings have upheld tribal shellfish harvest rights and the tribal environmental right to protection and restoration of salmon habitat.