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United States v. Winans


Determined that private ownership of land did not preclude Native Americans from gaining access to waters which were adjacent to that land. Also, affirmed the notion that states reserve the right to regulate off-reservation fishing rights.

In the long history of American jurisprudence, few disputes have found themselves in the courts more often than the fishing rights of the Yakima Indians, and Native American fishing rights in the state of Washington in general. The continuing dispute has led to numerous court battles, as well as hard feelings and even violent confrontations since a series of treaties were signed in the middle of the nineteenth century. Landmark decisions concerning these controversies have been rare, but rather the various decisions over the years have served more as links in a chain, coming together to sort out the confusion which marks the fight over Native American rights, treaty interpretation, private interests and state jurisdiction. One such case is United States v. Winans.

Around 1859, Isaac Stevens, the first governor of the Washington Territory, signed treaties with 17,000 Native Americans in the territory. Because Washington was still a territory at that time, Stevens was an officer of the federal government and not of the state of Washington, which did not as yet exist. The treaties called for the Native Americans, including the Yakimas, to give up claim to their lands and remove themselves to reservations and granted Native Americans the right to continue to fish unmolested in their "usual and accustomed places." For the Yakimas, this included a particular spot on the Columbia River.

When the Western states came into existence, they often were reluctant to recognize the treaty rights which had been vested in the Native Americans by the federal government. Native Americans were often forced to turn to the courts for relief, and the courts could not always be counted on to apply the treaty rights. Rulings were sometimes handed down that state laws superseded treaties made by the federal government, or that such treaties became defunct once states came into being. This was despite the fact that when the treaties were made, the understanding was that they were treaties between two sovereign powers, no different than a treaty made between the United States and a country such as France or Bolivia.

Very early in the twentieth century a private commercial fishing company held title to the land adjacent to the Yakimas' "usual and accustomed place" for fishing on the Columbia River. The company did not want the Yakimas to traverse its land en route to the river, which the Native Americans had no choice but to do. The company also received a license from the state to put up a fishing wheel, a large device which captures large numbers of fish. The device was located as such that it prevented the Yakimas from using their historical spot. They tried to gain relief from the circuit court in Washington, but their request was thrown out. That court essentially found that the Yakimas' treaty with the federal government guaranteed them little if anything in off-reservation fishing rights and said that the company was within its rights to keep the Native Americans off its lands and install the fishing wheel, and the Yakimas were entitled to no protection.

When the case found its way to the Supreme Court in 1905, Henry Hoyt, the solicitor general for the United States, took up the Native Americans' cause in an attempt to enforce its treaty and pleaded before the Court:

The Indian claim is not merely meritorious and equitable; it is an immemorial right, like a ripened prescription . . . A decree for appellants must consider the reasonable rights of both parties; restricting the fish wheels if they can be maintained at all, as to their number, method and daily hours of operation. Nor can the Indians claim an exclusive right, and it may be just to restrict them in reasonable ways as to times and modes of access to the property and their hours of fishing. But by some proper route, following the old trails, and at proper hours, with due protection for the defendants' buildings, stock and crops, free ingress to and egress from the fishing grounds should be open to the Indians, and be kept open.

The defendants countered by arguing that their ownership of the land was valid in every way and should not be compromised by the treaty. They said that the fishing wheel was merely a more modern and effective method of doing what the Native Americans had always done by more primitive methods, and claimed use of modern technology should not be held against them.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917United States v. Winans - Significance, Court Sides With The Yakimas