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United States v. Winans

Court Sides With The Yakimas

The Supreme Court sided with the Native Americans on all the major points. As to the question of what the treaty entitled the Native Americans to in regards to off-reservation fishing rights, the Court soundly rebuked the opinion of the lower court:

It was decided that the Indians acquired no rights but what any inhabitant of the territory or state would have. Indeed, acquired no rights but such as they would have without the treaty. This is certainly an impotent outcome to negotiations and a convention, which seemed to promise more and give the word of the Nation for more.

The Court also ruled that the Native Americans had a right to traverse the land--even if privately owned--which needed to be crossed to reach their fishing spot:

The contingency of the future ownership of the lands, therefore, was foreseen and provided for--in other words, the Indians were given a right in the land--the right of crossing it to the river--the right to occupy it for the extent and for the purpose mentioned. No other conclusion would give effect to the treaty. And the right was intended to be continuing against the United States and its grantees as well as against the state and its grantees.

The Court also decided that the use of fishing wheels under the existing circumstances deprived the Native Americans from exercising their treaty right. It did not, however, ban the use of the devices entirely, but remanded the issue to the circuit court for further consideration. Justice McKenna wrote:

The respondents urge an argument based on the different capacities of white men and Indians to devise and make use of instrumentalities to enjoy the common right . . . But the result does not follow that the Indians may be absolutely excluded . . . In the actual taking of fish white men may not be confined to a spear or crude net, but it does not follow that they may construct and use a device which gives them exclusive possession of the fishing places, as it is admitted a fish wheel does.

One passage in the opinion, however, was later used to construct arguments opposed to off-reservation fishing rights. Near the end of the opinion, Justice McKenna wrote: "It was within the competency of the nation to secure to the Indians such a remnant of the great rights they possessed as `taking fish at all usual and accustomed places.' Nor does it restrain the state unreasonably, if at all, in the regulation of the right." This was later used as a precedent to demonstrate that state regulation of off-reservation fishing rights was justifiable. Typically in the long dispute over the issue, the United States v. Winans decision had something for both sides to take both solace and defeat in.

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