SCOTUS Offers a Victory on Tribal Treaty Rights

Jun 14, 2018 | News

On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in Washington v. U.S., a case that had been watched closely by Indian country because of its potential impact on Native American treaty rights.

“This ruling gives us hope that the treaty we signed was not meaningless and the state does have a duty to protect this most beautiful resource,” said Brian Cladoosby, Tribal Chairman of Washington State’s Swinomish Indians, in a statement to the New York Times.

In building culverts that prevented salmon from passing through and reaching their spawning grounds, Tribes in Washington argued that the state violated their rights under the Stevens Treaties, agreements in which Tribes ceded millions of acres of lands in exchange for “the right to take fish.” In previous rulings, courts determined that these rights included the ability to make “a moderate living” from fishing waters, a guarantee that there would be enough fish for Tribes to harvest, and that destroying the habitat and therein reducing the amounts of fish was a violation of the agreements first forged in the 1850s.

Over the past three decades, Tribes have seen their salmon harvests reduced by roughly 75 percent.

The state argued that a court order demanding they repair the culverts by 2030 – a project that could cost more than $2 billion – infringed on states’ rights to decide how to use their land.

With a split 4-4 decision as a result of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s recusal, the court sustained a lower court’s ruling that mandated the state of Washington replace culverts with passable ones, which the Tribes hope will help raise salmon numbers.

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