This day in history, May 15, 1905: U.S. Supreme Court upholds tribal sovereignty, sets important precedents for interpreting treaties

On this day in history, May 15, 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Winans v. United States, a case that set important precedents for how the Court would interpret treaty rights.

This case has echoes of the current debate in Minnesota over the proposed Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline and its impact on the Anishinaabe people’s rights under the treaties of 1854 and 1855 to hunt, fish and gather on the lands they ceded to the United States.  Here’s the background: The Yakama Nation signed a treaty with the United States on June 9, 1855, which guaranteed the Yakama people “the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places in common with the citizens of the Territory.”

In the 1890s, brothers Lineas and Audubon Winans homesteaded on land near Celilo Falls in the Columbia River Gorge, essential fishing grounds for the Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce tribes, Wikipedia says. The Winans had a State of Washington license to run a fish wheel, “a device that could catch salmon by the ton, thus depleting the Yakamas’ fish supply.”

The Winans brothers also forcibly prevented the Yakama Indians from crossing their land, “blocking their passage to the traditional fishing grounds of the tribe.”

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the Yakama, granting them access to their fishing grounds and preventing the Winans brothers from overfishing the area. In the opinion written by Justice Joseph McKenna:

The right to resort to the fishing places in controversy was a part of larger rights possessed by the Indians, upon the exercise of which there was not a shadow of impediment, and which were not much less necessary to the existence of the Indians than the atmosphere they breathed. …

The case articulated two key principles of Indian law. First, the Court would interpret treaties as the Native Nations would have understood them at the time, “and as justice and reason demand.”

Second, it established the Reserved Rights Doctrine. That Doctrine says that the treaty of 1859, along with all other treaties with Native Nations, did not grant rights to Indians, but reserved to them rights they already possessed. Those retained rights were enforceable against the United States, individual states, and citizens of the United States such as the Winans brothers. For instance, the rights the state of Washington gave to the Winans to use fishing wheels “are subject to such reasonable regulations as will secure to the Yakima Indians the fishery rights reserved by the treaty of 1859.”

For a more detailed analysis, see Putting Flesh on the Bones of United States v. Winans, Private Party liability under treaties that reserve actual fish for the tribal taking, published in the Washington Law Review in 2004.

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