Adams was instrumental in working to assert and protect Native American fishing and hunting rights on traditional territories as free of state restrictions and to seek change through protests and court challenges. The issue was settled by the United States Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Washington (1974), known as the Boldt Decision, generally affirming native treaty fishing rights, and effectively making the tribes co-managers with Washington State of salmon and other fishing resources.
Adams participated in the American Indian Movement, including its occupation of the Department of Interior Building in Washington, DC in 1972 and in the Wounded Knee incident in 1973. In both cases Adams played important roles in negotiating peaceful resolutions of volatile situations. He continued his work to press for tribal sovereignty and to restore the role of elders in the tribes. In 2006 he was given the 'American Indian Visionary Award' by newspaper Indian Country Today.
Henry Lyle (known as Hank) Adams was born to an Assiniboine family on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana on May 16, 1943. His birthplace was Wolf Point, nicknamed as Poverty Flats.
In 1944, his family moved to Washington State, seeking defense industry jobs during World War II, as military bases and related contractors had greatly expanded. They settled in Grays Harbor County, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula south of the Quinault Indian Reservation. While growing up, Adams worked as a child and youth as a fruit and vegetable picker on nearby farms.
Adams attended the nearby Moclips-Aloha High School in Moclips, from which he graduated in 1961. In school, he was student-body president, editor of the school newspaper and yearbook, and a starting football and basketball player. He worked part of the time in a sawmill on the Quinault Reservation. He gained a strong work ethic from which he drew throughout the rest of his life.
After graduating from high school, Adams became interested in politics. In 1964, Adams helped organize a march on Olympia, the capital of the state, to protest the state's attempt to limit Indian treaty fishing rights. After lengthy court cases, in 1974 the Native American fishing and hunting rights on traditional lands outside their reservations were upheld by the US Supreme Court.
While in college at a campus in Walla Walla, Adams worked part time on the Quinault Reservation trying to deal with its problem of high rates of suicide rates. After two years, he dropped out of college to pursue this work full time. He became Special Projects Director of the National Indian Youth Council. This student organization was one of the most radical Native American institutions of the time.
In April 1964 Adams attracted media attention by refusing to be drafted into the United States Army unless traditional Indian treaty rights were accepted and recognized by the federal government. His rebellion was not successful, and he had to serve his term.
In 1968 Adams became the leader of the Survival of American Indians Association. This collection of 200 members was concerned with protecting traditional Indian fishing rights, which were under pressure from sports fishermen and local governments, which believed that their regulations applied to Native Americans. Native Americans said their right to fish superseded any state regulations. Near the end of 1968, Adams got more directly involved in the struggle. He fought against state fishing regulations of Native Americans on the Nisqually River in Washington. He was arrested often for protest actions between 1968 and 1971. He was shot in the stomach by white fishermen who acted as vigilantes against protesters. One of his sisters drowned in the course of another protest. From 1968 to 1970, Adams made a documentary about the fishing protests and what traditional fishing meant to the regional Native Americans.
In 1968 and 1972 Adams sought the Republican nomination as candidate for the House of Representatives from Washington's Third Congressional District. He was unsuccessful but supported the Republican candidates.
Adams continued to work on the fishing rights issue, also lobbying representatives in Washington. The issue made it to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in what is known as the Boldt Decision of 1974. The federal court affirmed that Native Americans retained hunting and fishing rights in their historic territories unless specifically excluded by treaty; this included the right to fish at traditional grounds off the reservations, and to co-manage the salmon resource along with the state.
During this period, Adams also became active in the American Indian Movement (AIM). He accompanied members of AIM on their Trail of Broken Treaties 1972 march across country and protest for more sovereignty. They concluded by occupying the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices at the Department of Interior headquarters in Washington, DC. Adams drafted a Twenty Point Proposal of demands. If the government met these demands, AIM was willing to evacuate the BIA quarters.
The group asked for the tribes to be given treaty-making authority, for the federal judiciary to accept the Native American right to interpret treaties, and for abolition of laws that threatened Indian sovereignty and life. The list was not accepted, but it stands as a record of goals for Native American sovereignty and self-determination. Adams' leadership and commitment to the Native American cause helped change government policy. His work helped federally recognized tribes gain more sovereignty and power.
Adams was instrumental in saving Indian lives in two of the major Red Power movements of the early 1970s. During the Bureau of Indian Affairs building takeover, Adams was the main negotiator on behalf of the Indians who occupied the Department of Interior headquarters. He was vital in gaining amnesty for protesters during negotiations with the White House for the events that occurred during the takeover. One year later Adams participated in the occupation of Wounded Knee.
At the Wounded Knee incident, Adams helped to successfully end the two-months' long occupation in a peaceful manner. He was the intermediary between Frank Fools Crow, the head of the Lakota Occupation, and representatives of President Richard Nixon's White House. Leonard Garment, the lead White House aide in both of these events said: “Hank Adams' role in the peaceful resolution of some very difficult problems is still vividly clear in my mind.”. Adams worked mainly behind the scenes on both of these issues. Adams said of his work: "Some of the things you prevent from happening are as important as many of the things you are able concretely to achieve."
In order to heighten awareness of the treaty disputes in the Northwest over fishing, Adams produced a documentary entitled As Long As The River Runs, filmed between 1968 and 1970. He dedicated this film to his sister-in-law, who died in a drowning incident while protesting fishing rights in the Northwest.
The film was shown in 1972 to occupiers of the Department of Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. Adams said that because the film showed violence against Native American women during protests, it might have contributed to the occupiers trashing the Interior building. The Indians at the BIA became more worried about the police who patrolled the exterior of the building during the occupation.
Hank Adams helped to research information critical to making the case for Native American fishing rights; in the legal challenge settled by the 1974 United States v. Washington, known as the Boldt Decision; the US Supreme Court affirmed that Native Americans in the Northwest had the right to continue to fish in traditional territories and in traditional ways exempt from state restrictions. This included fishing at traditional grounds off the reservation. With the help of activist Billy Frank Jr., Adams played a major behind-the-scenes role. Frank continued to be active in preserving traditional fishing crafts and preserving culture. Adams continues to work with issues surrounding the Boldt Decision to this day.
Hank Adams is considered by many in the Indian Community as one of the most influential people in the movement. Leonard Garment, the lead White House aide in resolving both the BIA occupation and Wounded Knee incident, said of Adams: "Hank Adams' role in the peaceful resolution of some very difficult problems is still vividly clear in my mind." Vine Deloria, Jr., one of the most influential Native American writers, said Adams was the most important Indians of the last 60 years.Adams' papers are held by Princeton University in its Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.
In 2006 he was given the American Indian Visionary Award by Indian Country Today newspaper, the third person to receive the award.