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Hank Adams, Activist and Indigenous Law Expert, 1943-2020

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November is Native American Heritage Month, when we recognize and celebrate the first peoples of this continent and their science, art, accomplishments and traditional knowledge. The Law Library collects primary source law, codes, and regulations of sovereign Indigenous nations and tribes, and commentary on Indigenous law as well. We recognize the importance of Indigenous law throughout the year, and especially in November.

An important figure in Indigenous law is Henry Lyle “Hank” Adams, who was recently mentioned in our Fish Wars post. Vine Deloria, Jr. called him the “most important Native American in the country.” While Adams was not a lawyer, he was an activist who organized groups and activities to promote Indigenous rights. His knowledge of Indigenous law was so deep that he was often assumed to be an attorney (Heffernan, 5). He used his legal knowledge and tactical skills as part of his activism.

Hank Adams, an Assiniboine-Sioux born on the Fort Peck Reservation, was raised in Taholah, Washington. He was a star student in high school and attended the University of Washington for two years, but left when John F. Kennedy died and started his activist work on Frank’s Landing in the Fish Wars. He was arrested multiple times at fish-ins and was shot once during the protests. He invited Marlon Brando to come out to Frank’s Landing to participate in “fish- ins”, worked with filmmakers to create three documentaries, and organized demonstrations (Wilkinson, 45). Adams approached Ralph Johnson, a University of Washington law professor, in 1966 to create an Indian law course at the law school (Wilkinson, 46). At the time, no law school offered American Indian law courses in the U.S. When the crucial Fish Wars case, United States v. Washington, came to trial in 1974, Adams represented tribal fishers. Vine Deloria wrote that, “When Hank came into the fishing rights struggle, the Indians were disheartened, disorganized and certainly demoralized…. In the decade in which he has been active, the situation has completely reversed.”

A teepee sits on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument with a sign that says "American Indian Movement."
[Tipi with sign “American Indian Movement” on the grounds of the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C., during the “Longest walk”, 11 July 1978] Leffler, Warren K. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Adams worked with fellow organizers in the planning of the protest march, the Trail of Broken Treaties. He later worked with the federal government for the resolution of the occupation protestors at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their safe return home (Heffernan, 16). As the protest was making its way toward D.C. and made a stop in Minnesota, Hank Adams wrote the “20 Points”. This document summarizes Indigenous needs, a history of their treaty rights, and includes a call for new treaties with the Federal government. He’s seldom credited as the author. Scholars and advocates consider the 20 Points paper an important and influential document in the history of Indigenous treaty rights and tribal-U.S. relations.

Adams later said that the “dismissal of the 20 Points helped provoke the takeover for which [American Indian Movement (AIM)] is best known, the siege of Wounded Knee” (Heffernan, 18). At Wounded Knee, Adams would again work to resolve the conflict with the federal government and having the needs of the protestors and the Indigenous peoples heard. In the 1980s, he worked with the Miskito People in Nicaragua to achieve self-determination. He also continued his advocacy work with the Northwest Treaty Tribes.

Throughout his life, Adams worked to advance the rights of Indigenous peoples and to educate Indigenous youth to know and advocate for their treaty rights and their communities. He said, “There are a lot of things beyond your control, but you do what little you can with the little time that you have.” He worked to get his community’s needs heard and he made significant achievements toward that goal. As the Northwest Treaty Tribes noted when he died, he was “an indispensable leader, and essential follower and a brilliant strategist, he shaped more Native American civil, human and treaty rights policies than most people even know are important or why.”


E90.A26 H36 2011  The Hank Adams reader: an exemplary Native activist and the unleashing of Indigenous sovereignty / edited by David E. Wilkins.

E99.N74 W55 2000 Wilkinson, Charles F. Messages from Frank’s Landing : a story of salmon, treaties, and the Indian way / by Charles Wilkinson ; photo essay by Hank Adams ; maps by Diane Sylvain.

KF27 .I527 1972a United States. Congress. House. Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. Subcommittee on Indian Affairs. Seizure of Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters. Hearings, Ninety-second Congress, second session … December 4 and 5, 1972. (Note: see page 162 for the Twenty Points)

Heffernan, Trova. “Hank Adams: An Uncommon Life.” Hank Adams—Who Are We? Legacy Washington, WA Secretary of State, 2016. Accessed 10 November 2022.

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