10 Facts You Need to Know About Tribal Treaty Rights

By Ryan Miller, Environmental Liaison- Program Manager, Tulalip Tribes Treaty Rights Office

  1. In the 1850s, territorial governor Isaac Stevens had a mandate to secure title to Indian lands in the Washington territory. Indian tribes entered into treaties that ceded millions of acres of land while reserving Reservation homelands and securing rights central to maintaining a tribal way of life and culture
    • Sovereign Indian tribes pre-existed the United States and the State of Washington. The treaties entered into between the United States, and Indian tribes were contracts between sovereign nations.  
  2. In treaties, such as the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855, tribes retained reservation lands and reserved hunting, fishing, and gathering rights off-reservation lands and waters in areas they had always used over broad areas of Washington State.  
    • In exchange for ceding land, tribes received a guarantee of protection for their inherent right to self-governance and self-determination as well as the right to fish in all Usual and Accustomed grounds; and to hunt and gather on all open and unclaimed lands.
  3. Treaty Rights reserve inherent sovereign rights of tribes-they are not rights given to tribes by the government, but rights that tribes have always possessed and reserved in the treaties.
    • SCOTUS in Worcester v Georgia stated that Indian tribes are “distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original natural rights as the undisputed possessors of the soil, since time immemorial.” Treaties made with tribes uphold their “original natural rights.”
  4. The exercise of treaty rights was and continues to be fundamental to the tribes’ culture and way of life, helping to explain why the tribes’ ancestors explicitly reserved them in the treaties.
    • Tribes could not then and cannot now imagine a life without access to the natural resources they have depended on since time immemorial. 
  5. Treaty Rights include off-reservation fishing rights within the Tribes Usual and Accustomed fishing grounds and are based on where tribes fished during pre-treaty times.
    • Fishing is essential to the culture of Coast Salish treaty tribes. The 1974 “Boldt Decision” included several proceedings involving tribal elders and other expert witnesses that established where tribes fished before and during treaty times. This formed the basis for the designation of their “Usual and Accustomed” fishing areas that tribes reserved in the treaties.
  6. Treaty Rights include access to resources on public and unoccupied lands like the National Forests and State timberlands.
    • Like fishing, the right to continue to hunt and gather on off-reservation lands was an essential element of the bargain that Tribes struck in negotiating the treaties.
  7. The Federal Government has a trust responsibility to protect the sovereign status of Indian tribes and honor the promises outlined in the treaties. 
    • When the U.S. signed treaties with tribes, the U.S. assumed legal obligations to protect tribal treaty rights and the resources on which those treaty rights depend.
  8. Treaty Rights are not restricted to specific species like fish or berries but cover all available natural resources, which were all critical to maintaining tribal lifeways.
    • Since time immemorial, tribes have made use of the plethora of resources available to them to thrive in their environments, developing complex cultures, relationships, trade routes, and communities. 
  9. Treaty Rights are property rights that exist over the whole of the landscape.
    • Treaty Rights are not limited to reservations. They are property rights that extend over all the lands under the treaty. 
  10. Treaties made between the Federal Government and tribes are the “Supreme Law of the Land,” meaning they supersede other laws, including those made by State Governments. 

No state or local government law can interfere with tribal self-governance or diminish the rights protected by federal treaties.