It was 35 years ago that I first came across Hank Adams. The scene was a
multi-purpose trailer at Frank's Landing on the Nisqually River, a few
minutes' walk from the site of the 1854 treaty between the Nisqually,
Puyallup and other Indians and the U.S. government and the center of
ongoing conflict on the river bank and in the courts between American
Indians and the state of Washington over the fishing rights secured to
Northwest Indians by that and similar treaties.
There he was, a young man in a blue-gray haze of smoke, surrounded by piles
of legal documents, books, newsletters and newspaper clippings, working
with quiet intensity on a manual typewriter in one small room of the
trailer. Hank was spearheading a writing campaign to explain the legal and
moral basis of Indian treaty rights and, in particular, Northwest Indians'
fishing rights to both lawyers and the general public, and was in the midst
of writing newsletters and press releases about recent and upcoming events.
Our introduction was through Maiselle Bridges, a Puyallup Indian and
daughter of the Frank's Landing patriarch, Nisqually Indian Bill Frank Sr.,
who had decided Hank needed a college student's assistance. Hank
undoubtedly wanted no assistance from an ignorant college student, but
couldn't bring himself to say so. It was a suitably non-verbal introduction
to a quiet, self-effacing man of brilliant intellect whose single-minded
commitment to Indian rights continues unabated to this day. A somewhat shy
perfectionist with a quirky sense of humor that leads to uncontrollable
laughter at times over the flaws and misinterpretations of the ordinary,
one could not ask for a less demanding, more generous mentor and friend.
An Assinaboine-Sioux of Montana origin, Hank grew up among the fishing
Indians of the Washington coast where he learned first-hand the oppression
of those attempting to continue centuries-old family fishing traditions by
exercising their treaty rights. Finding himself not entirely suited to the
activity of fishing, in junior high and high school he began to use his own
gifts, particularly the voice he found through writing, to find ways to
right the wrongs he saw committed by the state and federal governments
against Indians every day. His silver pen has given verbal expression ever
since to the passions and determination of generations of Indians whose
whole lives have been spent fighting for the treaty rights of their
communities and tribes.
His voice soon brought more enlightened outside attention to the physical
conflict waged by state agencies against Indians in the mid-20th century.
Through his silver pen, the pain and suffering of Indian fishermen and
families was thrust into the national spotlight -- attracting the famous
and the curious, from Marlon Brando to students from Scandinavia, South
America and Asia. Through lawsuits he researched and prepared, he brought
attention in the state and federal courts to the legal basis of Indian
fishing and other rights, and to the back room maneuvering of the BIA's
systematic disenfranchisement of American Indians seen to be troublemakers,
despite their clear Indian blood lines.
Caring about individuals as well as causes, Hank has frequently championed
and publicized the special achievements and talent of individual Indians,
young and old. He has also been a vigilant monitor of those who, seeing a
chance for attention, tried to use Indian causes for their own personal
gain rather than for the good of American Indians.
Eschewing American party politics as creations of a non-Indian system, Hank
argues that anyone who understood the Constitution would support Indian
treaty rights. The important point is that the individuals have respect for
law as opposed to a greedy objective to manipulate law for their own gain.
Among the more important and lasting impacts of Hank's silver pen and
persuasive determination is the "20 Points" proposal he authored to support
the effort of Indians across the country as they embarked on the Trail of
Broken Treaties in 1972. Presented to the president of the United States,
it listed 20 demands for the recognition of Indian rights and stopping the
abuse of Indians at federal and state levels in language that universally
applied across the country and remains valid yet today. In 1972, though,
his words provided an unprecedented bridge to understanding the claims of
those who occupied the BIA at the end of the cross-country march.
Presenting the points to the candidates of both parties running for
president at the time, Hank paved the way for new self-determination laws
and eventually for the return of some lands of great religious and
historical importance. The bridges built also helped him to argue directly
with White House officials of the Nixon administration to reduce the
violence at Wounded Knee, S.D., when Indians a year later occupied that
historical Indian land in protest of a BIA non-Indian land grab.
He may have made his most indelible mark, however, in the years of ghost
writing he did framing the legal arguments and pressing tribal lawyers for
a 100 percent effort to redeem Indian fishing rights in the landmark 1974
United States v. Washington "Boldt decision."
Many Indians understand their own history and treaty law better than any
non-Indians ever will, but few if any have been gifted with the flying
fingers that float bits of ink over paper with the apparently single
purpose of building bridges of understanding between the past and present,
and into the future, for and between both Indians and non-Indians. With his
characteristic "ah, ah" preceding any important statement, Hank attends to
the little details that could derail success and continues to empower
hundreds of leaders to use the passion of their own voices to carry the
message effectively beyond the pen and into the hearts of those who would
Hank, do you even know how thankful we are, how you have changed history
and how many hundreds of thousands of Indians and ordinary Americans have
been touched by your voice and benefited from your pen?
Susan Hvalsoe Komori, Esq., is a lawyer who has represented Frank's Landing
in fishing rights and other matters. She served as a special assistant in
the office of the secretary of the Interior Department during the Carter