United States v. Winans
198 U.S. 371 (1905)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Winans, 198 U.S. 371 (1905)

United States v. Winans

No. 180

Argued April 3-4, 1905

Decided May 16, 1905

198 U.S. 371

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED

STATES FOR THE DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON

Syllabus

This Court will construe a treaty with Indians as they understood it and as justice and reason demand.

The right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places in common with the citizens of the Territory of Washington and the right of erecting temporary buildings for curing them, reserved to the Yakima Indians in the Treaty of 1859, was not a grant of right to the Indians, but a reservation by the Indians of rights already possessed and not granted away by them. The rights so reserved imposed a servitude on the entire land relinquished to the United States under the treaty and which, as was intended to be, was continuing against the United States and its grantees, as well as against the state and its grantees.

The United States has power to create rights appropriate to the object for which it holds territory while preparing the way for future states to be carved therefrom and admitted to the Union; securing the right to the Indians to fish is appropriate to such object, and after its admission to the Union, the state cannot disregard the right so secured on the ground of its equal footing with the original states.

Patents granted by the United States for lands in Washington along the Columbia River and by the state for lands under the water thereof and rights given by the state to use fishing wheels are subject to such reasonable regulations as will secure to the Yakima Indians the fishery rights reserved by the Treaty of 1859.

The facts are stated in the opinion.

Page 198 U. S. 377

MR. JUSTICE McKENNA delivered the opinion of the Court.

This suit was brought to enjoin the respondents from obstructing certain Indians of the Yakima Nation, in the State of Washington, from exercising fishing rights and privileges on the Columbia River in that state claimed under the provisions of the treaty between the United States and the Indians made in 1859.

There is no substantial dispute of facts, or none that is important to our inquiry.

The treaty is as follows:

"Article I. The aforesaid confederated tribes and bands of Indians hereby cede, relinquish, and convey to the United States all their right, title, and interest in and to the lands and country occupied and claimed by them. . . ."

"Article II. There is, however, reserved from the lands above ceded, for the use and occupation of the aforesaid confederated tribes and bands of Indians, the tract of land included within the following boundaries:"

"* * * *"

"All of which tract shall be set apart, and, so far as necessary, surveyed and marked out, for the exclusive use and benefit of said confederated tribes and bands of Indians as an Indian reservation; nor shall any white man, excepting those

Page 198 U. S. 378

in the employment of the Indian Department, be permitted to reside upon the said reservation without permission of the tribe and the superintendent and agent. And the said confederated tribes and bands agree to remove to and settle upon the same within one year after the ratification of this treaty. In the meantime, it shall be lawful for them to reside upon any ground not in the actual claim and occupation of citizens of the United States, and upon any ground claimed or occupied, if with the permission of the owner or claimant."

"Guaranteeing, however, the right to all citizens of the United States to enter upon and occupy as settlers any lands not actually occupied and cultivated by said Indians at this time, and not included in the reservation above named. . . ."

"Article III. And provided that, if necessary for the public convenience, roads may be run through the said reservation, and, on the other hand, the right of way, with free access from the same to the nearest public highways, is secured to them, as also the right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways."

"The exclusive right of taking fish in all the streams where running through or bordering said reservation is further secured to said confederated tribes and bands of Indians, as also the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places, in common with citizens of the territory, and of erecting temporary buildings for curing them, together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses and cattle upon open and unclaimed land."

"* * * *"

"Article X. And provided that there is also reserved and set apart from the lands ceded by this treaty, for the use and benefit of the aforesaid confederated tribes and bands, a tract of land not exceeding in quantity one township of six miles square, situated at the forks of the Pisquouse or Wenatshapam River, and known as the 'Wenatshapam fishery,' which said reservation shall be surveyed and marked out whenever the President may direct, and be subject to the same provisions and restrictions as other Indian reservations."

12 Stat. 951.

Page 198 U. S. 379

The respondents or their predecessors in title claim under patents of the United States the lands bordering on the Columbia River, and under grants from the State of Washington to the shore land which, it is alleged, fronts on the patented land. They also introduced in evidence licenses from the state to maintain devices for taking fish called fish wheels.

At the time the treaty was made, the fishing places were part of the Indian country, subject to the occupancy of the Indians, with all the rights such occupancy gave. The object of the treaty was to limit the occupancy to certain lands, and to define rights outside of them.

The pivot of the controversy is the construction of the second paragraph. Respondents contend that the words "the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places in common with the citizens of the territory" confer only such rights as a white man would have under the conditions of ownership of the lands bordering on the river, and under the laws of the state, and, such being the rights conferred, the respondents further contend that they have the power to exclude the Indians from the river by reason of such ownership. Before filing their answer, respondents demurred to the bill. The court overruled the demurrer, holding that the bill stated facts sufficient to show that the Indians were excluded from the exercise of the rights given them by the treaty. The court further found, however, that it would "not be justified in issuing process to compel the defendants to permit the Indians to make a camping ground of their property while engaged in fishing." 73 F. 72. The injunction that had been granted upon the filing of the bill was modified by stipulation in accordance with the view of the court.

Testimony was taken on the issues made by the bill and answer, and upon the submission of the case, the bill was dismissed, the court applying the doctrine expressed by it in United States v. Alaska Packers' Assn., 79 F. 152; The James G. Swan, 50 F. 108, expressing its views as follows:

Page 198 U. S. 380

"After the ruling on the demurrer, the only issue left for determination in this case is as to whether the defendants have interfered or threatened to interfere with the rights of the Indians to share in the common right of the public of taking fish from the Columbia River, and I have given careful consideration to the testimony bearing upon this question. I find from the evidence that the defendants have excluded the Indians from their own lands, to which a perfect, absolute title has been acquired from the United States government by patents, and they have more than once instituted legal proceedings against the Indians for trespassing, and the defendants have placed in the river in front of their lands fishing wheels for which licenses were granted to them by the State of Washington, and they claim the right to operate these fishing wheels, which necessitates the exclusive possession of the space occupied by the wheels. Otherwise the defendants have not molested the Indians nor threatened to do so. The Indians are at the present time on an equal footing with the citizens of the United States, who have not acquired exclusive proprietary rights, and this it seems to me is all that they can legally demand with respect to fishing privileges in waters outside the limits of Indian reservations under the terms of their treaty with the United States."

The remarks of the court clearly stated the issue and the grounds of decision. The contention of the respondents was sustained. In other words, it was decided that the Indians acquired no rights but what any inhabitant of the territory or state would have. Indeed, acquired no rights but such as they would have without the treaty. This is certainly an impotent outcome to negotiations and a convention which seemed to promise more, and give the word of the nation for more. And we have said we will construe a treaty with the Indians as "that unlettered people" understood it, and "as justice and reason demand, in all cases where power is exerted by the strong over those to whom they owe care and protection," and counterpoise the inequality "by the superior justice

Page 198 U. S. 381

which looks only to the substance of the right, without regard to technical rules." 119 U. S. 119 U.S. 1; 175 U. S. 175 U.S. 1. How the treaty in question was understood may be gathered from the circumstances.

The right to resort to the fishing places in controversy was a part of larger rights possessed by the Indians, upon the exercise of which there was not a shadow of impediment, and which were not much less necessary to the existence of the Indians than the atmosphere they breathed. New conditions came into existence, to which those rights had to be accommodated. Only a limitation of them, however, was necessary and intended, not a taking away. In other words, the treaty was not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of right from them -- a reservation of those not granted. And the form of the instrument and its language was adapted to that purpose. Reservations were not of particular parcels of land, and could not be expressed in deeds, as dealings between private individuals. The reservations were in large areas of territory, and the negotiations were with the tribe. They reserved rights, however, to every individual Indian, as though named therein. They imposed a servitude upon every piece of land as though described therein. There was an exclusive right of fishing reserved within certain boundaries. There was a right outside of those boundaries reserved "in common with citizens of the territory." As a mere right, it was not exclusive in the Indians. Citizens might share it, but the Indians were secured in its enjoyment by a special provision of means for its exercise. They were given "the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places," and the right "of erecting temporary buildings for curing them." The contingency of the future ownership of the lands therefore was foreseen and provided for; in other words, the Indians were given a right in the land -- the right of crossing it to the river -- the right to occupy it to the extent and for the purpose mentioned. No other conclusion would give effect to the treaty. And the right was intended to be continuing against the United States

Page 198 U. S. 382

and its grantees as well as against the state and its grantees.

The respondents urge an argument based upon the different capacities of white men and Indians to devise and make use of instrumentalities to enjoy the common right. Counsel say:

"The fishing right was in common, and aside from the right of the state to license fish wheels, the wheel fishing is one of the civilized man's methods, as legitimate as the substitution of the modern combined harvester for the ancient sickle and flail."

But the result does not follow that the Indians may be absolutely excluded. It needs no argument to show that the superiority of a combined harvester over the ancient sickle neither increased nor decreased rights to the use of land held in common. In the actual taking of fish, white men may not be confined to a spear or crude net, but it does not follow that they may construct and use a device which gives them exclusive possession of the fishing places, as it is admitted a fish wheel does. Besides, the fish wheel is not relied on alone. Its monopoly is made complete by a license from the state. The argument based on the inferiority of the Indians is peculiar. If the Indians had not been inferior in capacity and power, what the treaty would have been, or that there would have been any treaty, would be hard to guess.

The construction of the treaty disposes of certain subsidiary contentions of respondents. The Land Department could grant no exemptions from its provisions. It makes no difference, therefore, that the patents issued by the Department are absolute in form. They are subject to the treaty as to the other laws of the land.

It is further contended that the rights conferred upon the Indians are subordinate to the powers acquired by the state upon its admission into the Union. In other words, it is contended that the state acquired by its admission into the Union "upon an equal footing with the original states" the power to grant rights in or to dispose of the shore lands upon navigable streams, and such power is subject only to the

Page 198 U. S. 383

paramount authority of Congress with regard to public navigation and commerce. The United States therefore, it is contended, could neither grant nor retain rights in the shore or to the lands under water.

The elements of this contention and the answer to it are expressed in Shively v. Bowlby,152 U. S. 1. It is unnecessary, and it would be difficult, to add anything to the reasoning of that case. The power and rights of the states in and over shore lands were carefully defined, but the power of the United States, while it held the country as a territory, to create rights which would be binding on the states was also announced, opposing the dicta scattered through the cases, which seemed to assert a contrary view. It was said by the court, through Mr. Justice Gray:

"Notwithstanding the dicta contained in some of the opinions of this Court, already quoted, to the effect that Congress has no power to grant any land below high water mark of navigable waters in a territory of the United States, it is evident that this is not strictly true."

"* * * *"

"By the Constitution, as is now well settled, the United States having rightfully acquired the territories, and being the only government which can impose laws upon them, have the entire dominion and sovereignty, national and municipal, federal and state, over all the territories, so long as they remain in a territorial condition. American Ins. Co. v. 356 Bales of Cotton, 1 Pet. 511, 26 U. S. 542; Benner v. Porter, 9 How. 235, 50 U. S. 242; Cross v. Harrison, 16 How. 164, 57 U. S. 193; First Nat. Bank v. Yankton County,101 U. S. 129, 101 U. S. 133; Murphy v. Ramsey,114 U. S. 15, 114 U. S. 44; Mormon Church v. United States,136 U. S. 1, 136 U. S. 42-43; McAllister v. United States,141 U. S. 174, 141 U. S. 181."

Many cases were cited. And it was further said:

"We cannot doubt, therefore, that Congress has the power to make grants of lands below high water mark of navigable waters in any territory of the United States whenever it becomes necessary to do so in order to perform international

Page 198 U. S. 384

obligations, or to effect the improvement of such lands for the promotion and convenience of commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, or to carry out other public purposes appropriate to the objects for which the United States hold the territory."

The extinguishment of the Indian title, opening the land for settlement and preparing the way for future states, were appropriate to the objects for which the United States held the territory. And surely it was within the competency of the nation to secure to the Indians such a remnant of the great rights they possessed as "taking fish at all usual and accustomed places." Nor does it restrain the state unreasonably, if at all, in the regulation of the right. It only fixes in the land such easements as enable the right to be exercised.

The license from the state which respondents plead to maintain a fishing wheel gives no power to them to exclude the Indians, nor was it intended to give such power. It was the permission of the state to use a particular device. What rights the Indians had were not determined or limited. This was a matter for judicial determination regarding the rights of the Indians and rights of the respondents. And that there may be an adjustment and accommodation of them the Solicitor General concedes, and points out the way. We think, however, that such adjustment and accommodation are more within the province of the circuit court in the first instance than of this Court.

Decree reversed, and the case remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE dissents.

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