6 minute read

Native American Rights

Hunting And Fishing Rights

Hunting and fishing rights are some of the special rights that Native Americans enjoy as a result of the treaties signed between their tribes and the federal government. Historically, hunting and fishing were critically important to Native American tribes. Fish and wildlife were a primary source of food and trade goods, and tribes based their own seasonal movements on fish migrations. In addition, fish and wildlife played a central role in the spiritual and cultural framework of Native American life. As the Court noted, access to fish and wildlife was "not much less necessary to the existence of the Indians than the atmosphere they breathed" (United States v. Winans, 198 U.S. 371, S. Ct. 662, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1089 [1905]).

When Native American tribes signed treaties consenting to give up their lands, the treaties often explicitly guaranteed hunting and fishing rights. When the treaties created reservations, they usually gave tribe members the right to hunt and fish on reservation lands. In many cases, treaties guaranteed Native Americans the continued freedom to hunt and fish in their traditional hunting and fishing locations, even if those areas were outside the reservations. Even when hunting and fishing rights were not specifically mentioned in treaties, the reserved-rights doctrine holds that tribes retain any rights, including the right to hunt and fish, that are not explicitly abrogated by treaty or statute.

Controversy and protest have surrounded Native American hunting and fishing rights, as state governments and non-Indian hunters and fishers have fought to make Native Americans subject to state hunting and fishing regulations. The rights of tribal members to hunt and fish on their own reservations have rarely been questioned, because states generally lack the power to regulate activities on Indian reservations. Tribes themselves have the right to regulate hunting and fishing on their reservations, whether or not they choose to do so. Protests have arisen, however, over the rights of Native Americans to hunt and fish off of their reservations. Such rights can be acquired in one of two ways. In some instances, Congress has reduced the size of a tribe's reservation, or terminated it completely, without removing the tribe's hunting and fishing rights on that land. In other cases, treaties have specifically guaranteed tribes the right to hunt and fish in locations off the reservations. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, treaty provisions commonly guaranteed the right of tribes to fish "at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations," both on and off their reservations. Tribes in the Great Lakes area also reserved their off-reservation fishing rights in the treaties they signed.

These off-reservation rights have led to intense opposition and protests from non-Indian hunters and fishermen and state wildlife agencies. Non-Indian hunters and fishermen resent the fact that Indians are not subject to the same state regulations and limits imposed on them. State agencies have protested the fact that legitimate conservation goals are compromised when Indians can hunt and fish without having to follow state wildlife regulations. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has consistently upheld the off-reservation hunting and fishing rights of Native Americans. In the 1905 case United States v. Winans, it ruled that treaty language guaranteeing a tribe the right to "tak[e] fish at all usual and accustomed places" indeed guaranteed access to those usual and accustomed places, even if they were on privately owned land.

The most intense opposition to Native American off-reservation hunting and fishing rights has occurred in the Pacific Northwest, where tribal members have fought to defend their right to fish in their traditional locations, unhindered by state regulations. In a series of cases involving the state of Washington and local Native American tribes, the federal courts ruled on aspects of the extent and limits of tribal fishing rights. In a 1942 case, Tulee v. Washington, 315 U.S. 681, 62 S. Ct. 862, 86 L. Ed. 1115, the Court ruled that tribal members could not be forced to purchase fishing licenses because the treaties that their ancestors had signed already reserved the right to fish in the "usual and accustomed places."

That case was followed by a series of cases involving the Puyallup Indian tribe that became known as Puyallup I, Puyallup II, and Puyallup III. In the first of those cases, the Court ruled that the state of Washington has the right, in the interest of conservation, to regulate tribal fishing activities, as long as "the regulation meets appropriate standards and does not discriminate against the Indians" (Puyallup Tribe v. Department of Game, 391 U.S. 392, 88 S. Ct. 1725, 20 L. Ed. 2d 689 [1968]). In the second case, the Court ruled that the state's prohibition on net fishing for steelhead trout was discriminatory because its effect was to reserve the entire harvestable run of steelhead to non-Indian sports fishermen (Department of Game v. Puyallup Tribe, 414 U.S. 44, 94 S. Ct. 330, 38 L. Ed. 2d 254 [1973]). In its ruling, the Court declared that the steelhead "must in some manner be fairly apportioned between Indian net fishing and non-Indian sports fishing." Finally, in Puyallup III, the Court ruled that the fish caught by tribal members on their reservation could be counted against the Indian share of the fish (Puyallup Tribe v. Department of Game, 429 U.S. 976, 97 S. Ct. 483, 50 L. Ed. 2d 583 [1976]).

This notion of a fair APPORTIONMENT of fish was clarified by United States v. Washington, 384 F. Supp. 312 (W.D. Wash. 1974), in which the court determined that treaty language guaranteeing tribes the right to take fish "in common with all citizens of the Territory" guaranteed the Indians not just the right to fish but also the right to a certain percentage of the harvestable run, up to 50 percent. This decision set off a firestorm of controversy throughout the Pacific Northwest. Hundreds of legal disputes erupted over the allocation of individual runs of salmon and steelhead, and state and non-Indian fishing interests attacked the decision. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld the decision in a collateral case, Washington v. Washington State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Ass'n 443 U.S. 658, 99 S. Ct. 3055, 61 L. Ed. 2d 823 (1979). In that case, the Court upheld the district court's ruling and went on to clarify the details of the way the fish should be apportioned. Writing for the majority, Justice JOHN PAUL STEVENS stated that the treaties guaranteed the tribes "so much as, but no more than, is necessary to provide the Indians with a livelihood—that is to say a moderate living." A "fair apportionment, " he said, would be 50 percent of the fish, emphasizing that 50 percent was the maximum, but not the minimum, amount of fish to which the Indians were entitled.

The Court resolved a decade-old legal dispute in 1999 involving Indian fishing and hunting rights with the decision in Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians, 526 U.S. 172, 119 S. Ct. 1187, 143 L. Ed. 2d 270 (1999). It ruled in favor of the Chippewa Indians' right to fish and hunt in northern Minnesota without state regulation. By a 5-4 vote, the Court upheld an appeals court decision finding that the tribe's rights under an 1837 treaty were still valid. The ruling marked a final victory for the tribe in its long fight to assert its treaty rights and to defend its cultural traditions.

Brought by the tribe in 1990, the lawsuit proved highly controversial in Minnesota, which regarded it as a threat to the $54 million in tourism revenue generated by the Mille Lacs Lake resort industry. But two lower federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the state's arguments that the 162-year old treaty had been invalidated by presidential order, later treaties, and even by Minnesota's gaining of statehood. The U.S. Supreme Court's majority opinion, written by Justice SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR, detailed the history of the treaty and subsequent actions that the state, nine counties, and landowners claimed had rendered the treaty invalid. She found nothing in this historical information that had bearing on the continued validity of the treaty.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: National Environmental Policy Act of (1969) to NoticeNative American Rights - Tribal Sovereignty, Treaty Rights, Reserved Rights Doctrine, Federal Power Over Native American Rights, Hunting And Fishing Rights