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NEXT month is the 40th anniversary of the federal Boldt decision, the historic affirmation of treaty fishing rights for Washington state tribes.

That milestone renders particularly poignant a proposal before the state Legislature to issue a de facto apology to the Native American activists arrested in the 1960s and 1970s for merely dropping a hook in the water.

Those arrests, and ensuing convictions, were a demand that the state live up to century-old treaties, including the 1855 Treaty of Point No Point, which declared that “the right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians.”

Those hooks in the water weren’t just activism, they were enforcement of a contract that the state had tried to forget.

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With the clarity of the passing years, it is easy now to see how badly the state erred in its heavy-handed response to the fish-ins. Billy Frank Jr., now a legendary elder of the Nisqually Tribe, was arrested at least 50 times, beginning when he was 14 and right up through 1973. “That’s a long time in your life to go to jail for something you believe in,” Frank told a legislative committee last week.

House Bill 2080 would require a criminal conviction related to the exercise of treaty rights to be vacated, so long as a handful of conditions are met. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, said such convictions prevented some Native American activists from traveling to Canada or adopting children.

How many tribal members were convicted is unclear, and their numbers are dropping by the year. The Washington State Patrol estimates that at least 80 people were convicted of fishing violations before the Boldt decision in 1974. The legislation should include a method to clear the names of deceased activists, such as David Sohappy of the Yakama Nation.

Conflict and debate over use of the state’s natural resources continue, but it is well past time for Washington state to admit its error.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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