Would a priest lie? When is a line not a line?
Such were the questions Friday raised in the final arguments of one of North Idaho’s most historic civil trials.
At issue is who owns the southern third of Lake Coeur d’Alene: the state of Idaho or the Coeur d’Alene Indians. The decision rests with 1st District Court Judge Edward Lodge. It could be months before he makes it.
“The court is humbled by the responsibility it has in deciding this case,” Lodge told the attorneys and a federal courtroom audience comprised mostly of tribal members and staff.
The question of ownership was raised by the federal government, which sued the state of Idaho on behalf of the Indians. The tribe was an intervenor. Its attorney, Ray Givens, called witnesses, presented exhibits and made arguments in tandem with federal lawyer Hank Meshorer.
They insisted that a 1873 executive order by President Ulysses S. Grant and later acts of Congress gave the Coeur d’Alenes the bed and banks of the lake and its tributary rivers.
The suit only addresses ownership of the southern third of the lake because of an 1889 agreement in which the tribe ceded the northern part of its reservation to the United States.
Moshorer repeatedly noted that maps of the transaction show a reservation boundary line drawn across the water - not one that follows the shoreline.
He ridiculed the state’s contention that the survey line was drawn simply as a convenience.
“Please,” he said, exaggerating the word, “show me one reason it was convenient to draw a line across a body of water? A line is a line is a line. One side is my side, one side is your side … I don’t think you can get any more specific than that.”
Deputy attorney general Steven Strack represented the state in the two-week trial. He called the federal arguments ambiguous, and tried to prove that Congress never gave the tribe ownership of the lake.
All navigable waterways became Idaho property after statehood in 1890, Strack contended, and Lake Coeur d’Alene was no exception.
Much of the state’s case, however, revolved around disproving the claim that the Indians were still dependent on the lake and rivers for food in 1873.
Federally hired experts testified that was true. But a state-hired historian argued that the Coeur d’Alenes had largely switched to farming for their food.
Strack quoted two famous historic figures, a missionary and a tribal leader, on the issue.
“Father Cataldo described every member of the tribe as having a farm. He simply wasn’t making that up out of the whole cloth. Not a priest. He wouldn’t lie like that in a public forum.
“Chief Seltice described the tribe as farming in earnest as early as 1860.”
What happens if the Coeur d’Alenes get control of the lake? Some of Friday’s most pointed comments dealt with that question.
Givens accused the state of scare tactics for suggesting that the tribe could use ownership to keep non-Indians off its part of the lake. Both law and the tribe’s history of good relations with its neighbors argue against that, he said.
“These waters will be protected and controlled by those who know them best and have used them forever,” Givens said.
The tribe contends its main interest in owning the lake is to protect it from environmental threats.
“I don’t doubt that they would be good stewards,” said Strack. “But that precious guarantee (of public access) would be lost forever.”
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