Tacoma, Wash – On April 6, 2021, a judicial robe worn by Judge George H. Boldt was donated to the Washington State Historical Society through the generosity of the Boldt family and the Swinomish Tribal Archives. The simplicity of the black mantle belies its sizeable legacy.
Forty-seven years ago, a landmark case with national ramifications was decided by Judge Boldt in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington (located in Tacoma). Known as the Boldt Decision (United States v. Washington), it was among the most significant decisions related to Native American rights during the twentieth century. The controversial 1974 ruling was upheld in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco, CA) in 1975, and was further affirmed in the United States Supreme Court in 1979. It has empowered further legislation and legal decisions addressing the rights of Indigenous people across the country and around the world.
Decades of activism and court cases around fishing access preceded the Boldt Decision, which at last ended Washington State’s infringement on related treaty rights. It reinstated a tribal partnership with state government in managing fisheries, protecting the ecosystem that supports fisheries, and prioritizing tribal access to fishing in traditional locations that were not on reservation land. The decision further defined the tribes’ rights to a fair and equitable harvest, specified as half of the harvest each year.
In August, 2020, the Boldt family presented the Swinomish Tribal Archives with items that belonged to Judge Boldt. “We were grateful to receive some of the family’s collection of Judge Boldt ephemera and two of his judicial garments.” said Theresa Trebon, tribal archivist and records manager for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. “Our relationship with Judge Boldt’s daughter, Ginny (Virginia) Boldt Riedinger, began with his obituary. I had it on my desk for over a year to try and track down members of his family. I wanted to ascertain what their side of the story was, how that controversial decision affected them, and to hear reflections they might have of the Judge’s relationships with tribes after the decision. I wanted to flesh out this critical chapter.” But lack of time prohibited an actual search to commence and it stayed on Trebon’s to-do list until early in the summer of 2020.
Last July, while Trebon was visiting formal Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby, he mentioned that his dad, Michael, had carved a totem pole with Judge Boldt on the top. He thought someone in the Boldt family had purchased it. This reignited Trebon’s determination to connect with the Boldt family. She pulled out the obituary and began researching. The sleuthing led her to a warm relationship with Ginny Riedinger, who graciously donated two sets of her father’s judicial robes to the tribe’s archives.
While Trebon knew that the Swinomish Tribal Archive would accession the older of the two robes, it was essential to her to find the right home for the other. “The Washington State Historical Society immediately came to mind. The Boldt Decision is a key part of our state’s story, not just a chapter in Native American treaty rights. Judge Boldt’s career encompassed much more than that landmark 1974 ruling, from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge litigation after the structure’s collapse, to his participation on the federal Pay Board Commission at the request of President Richard M. Nixon in 1971,” Trebon said. “His judicial robes tell many stories and I am thrilled, as is his family, that the Washington State Historical Society can assist the Swinomish Tribal Archive in sharing those with the public.”
The Washington State Historical Society was deeply honored to receive Judge Boldt’s robe, with all of its embedded significance. “I was so touched by Theresa’s call,” said Margaret Wetherbee, head of collections at WSHS. “This is an emotionally powerful object, and Theresa and I shed tears together over the significance of this donation, both for our Native communities and for the historic record. Judge Boldt’s robe will be preserved and cared for with the utmost respect for generations to come.”
Jennifer Kilmer, the Historical Society’s director, added, “Judge Boldt made history in Washington by affirming the treaty rights of our tribal nations. We are honored to be entrusted with his judicial robes, which will help us educate future generations about fishing rights in Washington, and the pivotal role the Boldt Decision played.”
In 2024, the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma will feature an exhibition marking the 50-year anniversary of the Boldt Decision. In addition, the Washington State Legislature has allocated capital funds for the History Museum to update some of its exhibits, including those focused on the history of the Native people of this region.