(CN) — Members of the federally recognized Snoqualmie Indian Tribe trace their family lines back to Chief Pat Kanim, who in 1855 signed the Treaty of Point Elliott and ceded all Snoqualmie land to the federal government. But the state of Washington argued in court on Friday that, despite the guarantees in the treaty, the Snoqualmie have no right to hunt and gather traditional food on the land they ceded.
In the 1855 treaty, Snoqualmie Chief Pat Kanim ceded land stretching from Snoqualmie Pass, where today I-90 crests the North Cascade mountain range, down to the Puget Sound, where the city of Everett now sprawls.
But the treaty didn’t only address who would occupy the land. Before they signed the treaty, the tribes negotiated to make sure they and their descendants would retain the right to hunt, fish and gather food in the land where they had lived for thousands of years.
According to Article V of the Treaty of Point Elliott: “The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory, and of erecting temporary houses for the purpose of curing, together with the privilege of hunting and gathering roots and berries on open and unclaimed lands.”
Those rights were heavily and sometimes violently contested until 1974, when U.S. District Judge George Boldt issued a landmark decision finding the government bound by Article V.
Boldt ruled that 14 tribal nations in Washington state still had fishing rights under the Treaty of Point Elliott, and other so-called “Stevens Treaties,” which tribes signed in 1854 and 1855 with Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. Boldt, an Eisenhower appointee, ruled that tribes who had signed the treaties should get half of the available catch of salmon and other fish regulated by the government.
The decision revamped regulation of salmon in the Pacific Northwest and forced the government to dramatically increase its protection of the various species and seasonal runs, in order to meet its legal obligations under the treaty — half of nothing wouldn’t meet that threshold.
But the Snoqualmie were not among those 13 tribes. The federal government didn’t recognize the Snoqualmie in 1974, and Judge Boldt found that the tribe hadn’t maintained a continuous cultural or political entity since Chief Kanim and a dozen other Snoqualmie leaders had signed the treaty. In a split ruling, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision.
In 1999, after a decades-long fight, the Snoqualmie secured the federal recognition to formally recognize it as a sovereign nation. The decision allowed them to establish a reservation on 16 acres they purchased in their original territory.
It was the culmination of efforts that began when the tribe lost recognition in 1953 — during the era of federal termination policy aimed at assimilating tribes into U.S. society and absolving the government of treaty obligations.
In its 1999 decision granting recognition, the government used the exact opposite finding that Boldt had found: that the Snoqualmie had demonstrated a continuous existence since 1855. The U.S. Department of Interior noted in the final determination of federal acknowledgement of the Snoqualmie” “The Snoqualmie tribe was acknowledged by the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855 and continued to be acknowledged after that point.”
Judge Boldt’s ruling dwelled only on fishing rights and did not explicitly mention the Snoqualmie’s treaty rights to hunt and gather roots and berries in their usual spots. State recognition of those rights was long standing practice.
It was memorialized in a 1969 letter from Walter Neubrech, then head of enforcement for the Washington Department of Game, that Washington state recognized the Snoqualmie’s hunting rights.