Hank Adams was a nationally celebrated historian and strategist who fought for the rights of American Indians in the Northwest and beyond.
Adams died at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia on Dec. 21, following repeated bouts with illness, according to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which announced his death. He was 77.
The historian Vine Deloria called Adams “the most important Indian” in the U.S. because of his role in important actions and movements beginning in the 1960s for Indian sovereignty and civil rights.
While he always sought to stay out of the spotlight, Adams was present at and helped shape many of the key historic events in Indian Country over four decades, including the Fish Wars in the Pacific Northwest.
A generation of Indian fishing right activists were jailed, fined and beaten by Washington state game wardens as Native Americans, first on the Nisqually River in Thurston County, and then on the Puyallup, fought to fish off the reservation, a right reserved in their treaties with the U.S. government.
The fish-ins culminated in the 1974 decision by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt affirming the tribes’ reserved rights to half the catch. The case was brought by the United States against the State of Washington for its continued violation of the tribes’ treaty rights.
Adams was a crucial ally and strategist throughout the battle, both on the riverbanks and in the courtroom.
He also negotiated peaceful ends to some of the most dangerous standoffs in modern Indian history, including negotiations with the Nixon White House to resolve the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., by tribal activists in 1972, and a 10-week siege of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973.
Either incident could have resulted in fatalities, but Adams was credited with a critical peacekeeping role.
Willie Frank III, a member of the Nisqually tribal council, remembers growing up listening to Adams and his father Billy Frank Jr. strategizing about the fish wars then underway at Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually River.
“You can’t talk about my dad without talking about Hank, and you can’t talk about Hank without talking about my dad,” Frank said.
“They were pretty close, he was my dad’s consultant in every major decision,” Frank said of Adams. “He was the strategist and part of every big Native American movement since the 1960s. He was the man behind the scenes, he was never the guy to be out front.”
A renowned historian and archivist, Adams amassed an important collection of historic photographs and papers. “There was a little path through, the rest was books and papers and boxes of paper,” Frank said. “But you tell him you want to see a certain piece of paper, he could go right to it.
“I believe he was the smartest man in Indian Country, with his knowledge of history.”
In later years, Adams had a wide circle of friends with whom he shared photos and history on social media.
Frank and others credited the work of civil and treaty rights warriors like Adams and his father for where Indian people are today, in the Northwest and beyond.
Ralph Munro, elected five times as Secretary of State for Washington, remembered Adams as a skillful negotiator on both sides of the aisle.
“He became a nationally known spokesman for Indians when no Indians were speaking out about anything,” Munro remembered. “He was very, very smart … and you knew if he came to you, what he told you was true. That is a big thing.
“He just knew it takes a majority to win, and how you make the system work. And he didn’t give a damn who got the credit.”
Born in Wolf Point, Montana, May 16, 1943, Henry “Hank” Lyle Adams was enrolled in the Assiniboine-Sioux Tribe. He moved to Washington state with his family after WWII, where he attended Moclips-Aloha High School near the Quinault Indian Nation, editor Mark Trahant reported in his obituary for Adams in Indian Country Today.
It was in 1963 that Adams joined the National Indian Youth Council and began his long partnership fighting for treaty rights with Billy Frank and for Indigenous sovereignty.
“We have our warriors, the ones who are not just the person who cares, or who knows, but who believes, and Hank was one of those,” said G.I. James, an elder at the Lummi Nation. “That is really rare nowadays, to find someone willing to commit their life to that belief, dedicated to defending and protecting our rights.”
Yet Adams’ vision was never to raise up one tribe over another, James said. “That was not what it was about for Hank or for Billy (Frank). They were about protecting as much as we could for everybody.”
The sacrifices made by Adams and others were borne by their families and children, remembered Nancy Shippentower, a former Puyallup tribal council member who at 67 still acutely remembers how hard she cried visiting her own father in jail during the fish wars.
“I grew up in the fishing rights struggle. I can tell when I was little I didn’t want to be an Indian. I wanted to be a white girl wearing those silly dresses and little shoes, we didn’t have the money to do it,” Shippentower said. “Why? Because the state was arresting our fathers.
“If it wasn’t for those people fighting on the river banks, there wouldn’t have been a Boldt decision. The courage of these warriors, they were impeccable people. They had a lot of courage to do what they did.”
W. Ron Allen, long time chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe, said Adams was respected across Indian Country and ahead of his time.
“He understood sovereignty and treaty rights were connected, that you didn’t have one without the other,” Allen said. “He always was making that message clear and clean and consistent about who we are as Indigenous people. He was ahead of the United Nations in moving the Indigenous people forward in terms of our unique standing.”
No funeral services are planned because of the pandemic, the fish commission noted in its announcement, but a memorial will take place in the future.
“Our sorrow fills the horizon,” the commission stated on behalf of family and friends of Adams. “At this time the family asks for love and prayers as we grieve for our relative.”