Skip to main content

Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

Hank Adams was prolific. In every sense of the word. He was the genius who disappeared into stacks of documents and then reported the specific language defending a treaty or to build a case for justice. He then outlined a strategy to bring that research home in order to make the world better for Native Americans.

Adams once said (and this could describe himself), “Leadership is not the person who holds the office, but there are the leaders who act through the agency of others.”

He was instrumental in the success of the Boldt decision. And resolving the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Wounded Knee. He chronicled and reshaped Indian policy. And always pressed for the rights of Native people, especially those codified by treaty, in every major case that came before the Supreme Court or surfaced in public discourse.

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of tribes last year in the case Herrera v. Wyoming, a case that supported the right of the Crow Tribe to hunt on "unoccupied lands of the United States'' under an 1868 treaty, Adams wrote Indian Country Today and included a 14-page review of treaty rights involving hunting and fishing cases. Adams was disappointed that the lawyers for the tribe did not press the case further because it did not obliterate a terrible precedent.

“The preferred and most obvious resolution is for the Court to directly overrule its 1896 immoral decision in Ward v. Race Horse,” he wrote. “Harrera’s lawyer nonetheless used his reserved time at end to say: ‘we don’t think you need to take the next step and expressly overrule the outcome in Race Horse.’’

Then from the 1960s until his death this week, Adams was constantly reading, reviewing, and stirring ideas.

A news release from the National Indian Fisheries reported the news: “It is with a heavy heart that the family and close friends of Hank Adams announce his passing this Solstice Day, December 21, 2020 at St. Peter’s hospital in Olympia, Wash.”

He was called “the most important Indian” by Vine Deloria, Jr., because Adams was involved with nearly every major event in American Indian history from the 1960s forward.

“Hank's a genius. He knows things we don't know. He sees things we don't see,” said attorney Susan Hvalsoe Komori when Adams was awarded the 2006 American Indian Visionary Award by Indian Country Today. Suzan Harjo nominated Adams, Billy Frank Jr., and Vine Deloria Jr. for the visionary award.

“Adams was always the guy under the radar, working on all kinds of things," said the late Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Henry “Hank” Adams, Assiniboine-Sioux, was 77. He was born in Wolf Point, Montana.

Toward the end of World War II his family moved to Washington state. He attended Moclips-Aloha High School near the Quinault Nation where he was the student-body president, editor of the school newspaper and yearbook, and played football and basketball.

Adams joined the National Indian Youth Council in 1963 where he began to focus on treaty rights, just as the Northwest “fish wars” were beginning. Adams had so many personal connections with people from that era, such as Mel Thom, Clyde Warrior and Willie Hensley. It was while working with the youth council when Adams first met Marlon Brando. The actor would be prominent later in the Frank’s Landing protests.

It was through the youth council that Adams began working at Frank’s Landing with Billy Frank and others who were working to advance the treaty right to fish for salmon.

“That turned into a civil rights agenda,” Adams said in an interview. “It had been brutal from 1962 onward and there were just a few fishermen down there, fighting with their families for their rights.”

To make a point, Adams refused induction into the military because the U.S. was failing to live up to its treaty obligations. (He eventually served for two years in the U.S. Army.)

Adams was fascinated by politics and met Richard Nixon in 1962. He said he had regard for Nixon but was drawn by the idealism of John F. Kennedy. “After his death, I dropped out of college on the day of his death and so I went back to Quinault and began working with younger people, my contemporaries.”

Adams went to Washington, D.C., in 1965 to work as an assistant to Vine Deloria, Jr., who was then the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

He was back in Washington when the fishing wars began to heat up as Billy Frank and other Northwest leaders demanded that treaty rights to salmon be recognized by state and federal governments. And it was a “war.” While tribal citizens cited the Stevens’ treaties, and used the tactics of civil disobedience, the state and federal governments relied on the power of a police state.

Frank told a story about a 1968 fishing protest in Olympia “where all the police are.” But not everyone was supposed to be arrested. Frank said it was the job of Adams “the visionary” to protect them all. But when the arrests were made, “here comes our visionary. I said, ‘What are you doing here? You're supposed to get us out. You're the strategist, thinking way out into the future,’” Frank said.

At another protest, this one on the Puyallup River, Frank remembers a warning to tribal fishers that they were about to be gassed by state game wardens. "Adams was saying, 'Gas won't hurt us.' Well, I am here to tell you, gas does hurt. And pretty soon we were hauled off to jail. ... Those were the bad days. I hope we never go through them again."

It was from those many trips to jail that eventually treaty-protected fishing rights were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Boldt decision affirmed the tribal right to fish in the usual and accustomed places in common with other citizens.

Adams' role in the Tacoma trial was unprecedented. He was a lay-lawyer representing tribal fishing people and the last person to speak. Imagine this moment: The judge considered Adams as the most informed intellect to explain the treaty and the people.

One of Adams’ arguments was that the state was acting to support conservation. “We were able to provide the evidence proving that conservation had not been the real issue at all,” Adams said in a 2012 interview. “It was a power expropriation of Indian resources and there was a destructive assault upon the resources and it hasn't fully ended, you know.”

As the court case made its way through the process, Adams and Billy Frank found a way to meet with Judge George Boldt in chambers.

“We don't want to talk to you about the case,” Adams recalled at the 40th anniversary dinner of the Boldt decision. Instead the pair met with the judge to tell them that Montana Sen. Lee Metcalf was an admirer of the judge, who was always from Montana. They swapped Montana stories. And, the joke was the case could be resolved if it was just Montanans in the room.

The Supreme Court affirmed treaty rights and the Boldt decision in a series of cases in 1975.


Takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Shortly before the 1972 election a caravan of American Indians traveled from points across the country to Washington to protest broken treaties. After failed negotiations for housing, the protest ended up at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and when the bureaucrats left for the day … the protestors remained.

Adams was also instrumental in resolving the 1972 takeover of the BIA. Richard Nixon’s special assistant, Leonard Garment, said that Adams’ role was essential. He said the story could have been tragic, even a blood bath. Some in the administration called for a military assault on the building. One told Adams that the agency should be thinking, “If you have to kill them, go in and get them out.”

And that notion was present in the building as well. Suzan Harjo and her spouse Frank Harjo covered the occupation for a radio station in New York City. Harjo was nine months pregnant. She recalled the BIA building “lined with Molotov cocktails.” At one point Russell Means shouted, ‘It’s a great day to die!’ “And he lit this long fuse. My husband, Frank Harjo, Wotco Muscogee, Oren Lyons, Onondaga Faithkeeper, and Billy Lazore — an Onondaga chief—ran down the stairs saying, ‘Bullshit!’ They rubbed the fuse out with their feet.”

Adams was both a public foil and a behind-the-scenes negotiator. The Trail of Broken Treaties submitted a plank of 20 proposals. Adams called the Nixon administration’s response “almost totally devoid of positive comment.”

But privately Adams and Garment worked on a resolution. Adams’ reward for being an intermediary? He was arrested in 1973 and his home searched for “government documents.”

“Plus they took my typewriter which I’d had since 1968 during our encampment on the Nisqually River,” Adams said.

A federal grand jury refused to indict Adams (along with journalists who had been reporting on the incident) and eventually Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus ordered the material returned. He “directed the FBI to return everything that they'd taken from me and particularly my typewriter,” Adams said with a laugh.

Adams played a similar role during the standoff at 1973 Wounded Knee. He said a government helicopter flew him to White Clay, Nebraska, where he was to meet with the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service. After that meeting Adams was supposed to meet in Denver with Marlon Brando. The Justice Department was supposed to drive Adams back to the airport but “they ran out of gas within sight of the airport.” Adams laughed. “The federal government doesn’t run out of gas. They didn’t want me to meet with Marlon Brando” and stir up public support for the occupation.

Adams said the negotiations were complicated by the Nixon administration’s “corruption.” There were ernest people working on a solution, but that was often contradicted by others who were incendiary. He recalled one FBI agent who bragged about being able to kill you with a pencil. “He had all these tests to prove his manhood,” Adams said, holding a candle flame to his hand. “But then there were decent people like Brad Patterson and Leonard Garment.”

There are so many stories yet to tell about Hank Adams. He was meticulous in his documentation of family histories, often used to help people grieve over the loss of family, or to call out people who lied and claimed Indigenous ancestry. He continued to monitor and press for treaty rights. And for Leonard Peltier’s release from prison.

The family of Adams said a funeral is not possible at this time and will coordinate a memorial in the near future.

Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.