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Supreme Court: Yakama Nation land ownership ruling stands, half of Mount Adams remains part of reservation

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

After more than a century, the debate over who owns the eastern half of Mount Adams and more than 120,000 acres in southwestern Washington is over.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided it wouldn’t consider a land dispute case between the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and Klickitat County.

Klickitat County wanted the Supreme Court to hear the case and overturn a 2021 decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 9th Circuit ruled against the county last summer, arguing that the nearly 200 square miles of disputed land has formally been part of the Yakama Nation since the mid-1800s when the nation signed a treaty with the U.S.

“The Supreme Court’s decision once again validates the continuing strength of our Treaty rights under the United States Constitution,” Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman Delano Saluskin said in a news release. “The Yakama Nation will never compromise when our Treaty is at stake.”

Attempts to reach Yakama Nation attorney Ethan Jones, Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney David Quesnel and the Klickitat County commissioners for comment were unsuccessful.

The formerly disputed territory – known as Tract D – makes up a relatively small percentage of the 1.1 million-acre Yakama Indian Reservation, but it’s still sizable. The land is vaguely triangular, with a northern corner at Mount Adams, a southwestern corner less than 15 miles north of the Oregon border and a southeastern corner 15 miles northwest of Goldendale.

The written descriptions of the land’s boundaries have confused and frustrated governments and cartographers for more than 100 years.

Governor of the Territory of Washington Isaac Stevens negotiated a treaty between the Yakamas and the U.S. in 1855. Working out the language of the treaty was a challenge.

The Yakamas didn’t speak English and were unfamiliar with the concepts of latitude and longitude. That meant the boundaries of the Yakama Indian Reservation had to be described exclusively with natural features.

In at least one case, the word used to describe those features was problematic.

“Spur” played a central role in the legal battle between the Yakama Nation and Klickitat County. The treaty states that the southwestern border of the reservation would be “passing south and east of Mount Adams, to the spur whence flows the waters of the Klickatat and Pisco rivers …”

What “spur” means in that context isn’t clear. Klickitat County argued such a spur exists, but neither the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington nor the 9th Circuit found the county’s arguments persuasive. The treaty’s description of the reservation’s southwestern boundary is ambiguous, the courts said, and some of the natural features it references – including the spur – don’t exist.

There were other issues with the written reservation description.

In the decades following the treaty, surveyors kept drawing new reservation boundary lines, unable to make sense of the described landmarks. A federal surveyor in 1900 said there was no way of reconciling the wording of the treaty “with the topography of the country.”

Not only did different surveys dramatically change the boundaries of the Yakama Indian Reservation – one cut out nearly half a million acres – the reservation map disappeared soon after the treaty was signed. It didn’t show up again until 1930 when an employee in the Office of Indian Affairs found it, filed under “M” for Montana instead of “W” for Washington. Surveys after the map’s rediscovery included Tract D as part of the reservation.

Tract D’s status has repeatedly changed over the last 120 years.

In 1904, Congress passed legislation authorizing the selling of Yakama Indian Reservation lands without the Yakamas’ consent. That 1904 law, which doesn’t recognize Tract D, was essential to Klickitat County’s argument. In the county’s eyes, the 1904 act showed Tract D had been removed from the reservation.

In 1939, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes told Congress that the land belonged to the Yakamas – although not all federal agencies agreed.

The Indian Claims Commission in the 1960s also said Track D belonged to the Yakamas and the U.S. has officially recognized the land as Yakama Nation territory since 1982.

But the dispute never stopped and it got louder five years ago.

On Sept. 27, 2017, the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office arrested an enrolled Yakama member. The Sheriff’s Office said the minor had committed statutory rape and that the crime occurred on Tract D, near the town of Glenwood. The individual, who is not named in court documents, was prosecuted and detained at the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility.

If the minor had committed the crime on Klickitat County land there wouldn’t have been a dispute. But the Yakama Nation argued Klickitat County had no jurisdiction over the matter since it involved a tribal member on tribal lands. Only the Yakama Nation or the federal government had authority in this situation, the Yakamas argued.

The Yakama Nation sued and the case went to the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington. After District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice ruled in the Yakama Nation’s favor, Klickitat County appealed and it case moved up to the 9th Circuit.

The 9th Circuit upheld the District Court’s ruling for two primary reasons.

First, the Yakamas in 1855 believed the treaty they signed included Tract D. Treaty terms must be interpreted “in the sense in which they would naturally be understood by the Indians,” the 9th Circuit wrote, referencing a previous Supreme Court case. How the Yakamas understood the treaty matters, the 9th Circuit wrote, and they understood it to include Tract D.

On top of that, the 9th Circuit cited another Supreme Court case that found “Indian treaties are to be interpreted liberally in favor of the Indians,” and “any ambiguities are to be resolved in their favor.” The description of the southwest boundary is ambiguous, therefore legal precedent states the court must rule in favor of the Yakamas.

If the legal dispute arises again, the Yakama Nation will be ready to engage it, Saluskin said.

“We have repeatedly defended and will continue to defend our Treaty rights against Klickitat County if challenged,” he said, “but hope this starts a new relationship between our governments founded on respect for the Yakama Nation’s Treaty rights and history.”

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