Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States, 248 U.S. 78 (1918)


U.S. Supreme Court

Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States, 248 U.S. 78 (1918)

Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States

No. 212

Argued November 4, 1918

Decided December 9, 1918

248 U.S. 78



U.S. Supreme Court

Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States, 248 U.S. 78 (1918) Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States

No. 212

Argued November 4, 1918

Decided December 9, 1918

248 U.S. 78




For safeguarding and advancing a dependent Indian people resident on islands belonging to the United States in the Territory of Alaska, Congress has power to reserve for their use, until otherwise provided by law, not only the upland of the islands, but also the adjacent

Page 248 U. S. 79

submerged land and deep waters supplying fisheries essential to the Indians' welfare. P. 248 U. S. 87.

An act of Congress set aside, "until otherwise provided by law, the body of land known as Annette Island," in Alaska, for the use of the Metlakahtla Indian (recently emigrated from British Columbia and settled on the islands with the encouragement of executive and administrative officer), and such other Alaskan natives as might join them, to be held and used by them in common under regulations of the Secretary of the Interior. The islands were a well defined group, uninhabited before the coming of the Indians, who were peculiarly dependent on the adjacent fisheries. Held, in view of the circumstance at time of the enactment and it subsequent construction, that the reservation included adjacent deep water, and that a fish net constructed therein by defendant 600 feet beyond high tide line, and whose operation might materially reduce the supply of fish accessible to the Indians, was subject to abatement at the suit of the United States. P. 248 U. S. 89.

240 F. 274 affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 248 U. S. 86

MR. JUSTICE VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a suit by the United States to enjoin the Alaska Pacific Fisheries, a California corporation, from maintaining, and to compel it to remove, an extensive fish trap erected by it in navigable waters at the Annette Islands in Alaska. The objections urged Against the trap are, first, that it is within a reservation lawfully established for the use of the Metlakahtla and other Indians, and second, that it is an unauthorized obstruction to the navigable capacity of waters of the United States. A decree was entered granting the relief sought, and this was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals. 240 F. 274.

The Annette Islands are a group of small islands in southeastern Alaska. During the summer of 1887, some 800 Metlakahtla Indians emigrated from British Columbia and settled on one of these islands. The emigration and settlement were not only acquiesced in, but encouraged, by executive and administrative officers of the United States, [Footnote 1] and subsequently were sanctioned by Congress through the enactment of ยง 15 of the Act of March 3, 1891, c. 561, 26 Stat. 1101. That section reads as follows:

"That, until otherwise provided by law, the body of lands known as Annette Islands, situated in Alexander Archipelago in southeastern Alaska, on the north side of Dixon's Entrance, be, and the same is hereby, set apart as a reservation for the use of the Metlakahtla Indians and those people known as Metlakahtlans who have recently emigrated from British Columbia to Alaska, and such

Page 248 U. S. 87

other Alaskan natives as may join them, to be held and used by them in common, under such rules and regulations, and subject to such restrictions, as may [be] prescribed from time to time by the Secretary of the Interior."

The fish trap was erected in 1916, without the consent of the Indians or the Secretary of the Interior. It is a formidable structure consisting of heavy piling and wire webbing, is located in water of considerable depth approximately 600 feet from the high tide line of the island on which the Indians settled, is intended to catch about 600,000 salmon in a single season, and its operation will tend materially to reduce the natural supply of fish accessible to the Indians.

The principal question for decision is whether the reservation created by the Act of 1891 embraces only the upland of the islands or includes as well the adjacent waters and submerged land. The question is one of construction -- of determining what Congress intended by the words "the body of lands known as Annette Islands."

As an appreciation of the circumstances in which words are used usually is conducive, and at times is essential, to a right understanding of them, it is important, in approaching a solution of the question stated, to have in mind the circumstances in which the reservation was created -- the power of Congress in the premises, the location and character of the islands, the situation and needs of the Indians, and the object to be attained.

That Congress had power to make the reservation inclusive of the adjacent waters and submerged land as well as the upland needs little more than statement. All were the property of the United States and within a district where the entire dominion and sovereignty rested in the United States and over which Congress had complete legislative authority. National Bank v. County of Yankton, 101 U. S. 129, 101 U. S. 133; Shively v. Bowlby, 152

Page 248 U. S. 88

U.S. 1, 152 U. S. 47-48, 152 U. S. 58; United States v. Winans, 198 U. S. 371, 198 U. S. 383. The reservation was not in the nature of a private grant, but simply a setting apart, "until otherwise provided by law," of designated public property for a recognized public purpose -- that of safeguarding and advancing a dependent Indian people dwelling within the United States. See United States v. Kagama, 118 U. S. 375, 118 U. S. 379 et seq.; United States v. Rickert, 188 U. S. 432, 188 U. S. 437.

The islands are in the interior of the Alexander Archipelago, and separated from other islands by well known bodies of water. Before the Metlakahtla settlement, they were wild and uninhabited. While bearing a fair supply of timber, only a small portion of the upland is arable, more than three-fourths consisting of mountains and rocks. Salmon and other fish in large numbers frequent and pass through the waters adjacent to the shore, and the opportunity thus afforded for securing fish for local consumption and for salting, curing, canning and sale gives to the islands a value for settlement and inhabitance which otherwise they would not have.

The purpose of the Metlakahtlans in going to the islands was to establish an Indian colony which would be self-sustaining and reasonably free from the obstacles which attend the advancement of a primitive people. They were largely fishermen and hunters, accustomed to live from the returns of those vocations, and looked upon the islands as a suitable location for their colony, because the fishery adjacent to the shore would afford a primary means of subsistence and a promising opportunity for industrial and commercial development.

After their settlement and before the reservation was created, the Indians, under the guidance of a noted missionary, adopted a form of self-government suited to their needs, established for themselves a village with substantial dwellings, schoolhouses, and the like, and

Page 248 U. S. 89

constructed and installed an extensive establishment where they canned salmon for the market. [Footnote 2]

The purpose of creating the reservation was to encourage, assist, and protect the Indians in their effort to train themselves to habits of industry, become self-sustaining, and advance to the ways of civilized life. True, the Metlakahtlans were foreign born, but the action of Congress has made that immaterial here.

The circumstances which we have recited shed much light on what Congress intended by "the body of lands known as Annette Islands." The Indians could not sustain themselves from the use of the upland alone. The use of the adjacent fishing grounds was equally essential. Without this, the colony could not prosper in that location. The Indians naturally looked on the fishing grounds as part of the islands, and proceeded on that theory in soliciting the reservation. They had done much for themselves, and were striving to do more. Evidently Congress intended to conform its action to their situation and needs. It did not reserve merely the site of their village or the island on which they were dwelling, but the whole of what is known as Annette Islands, and referred to it as a single body of lands. This, as we think, shows that the geographical name was used, as is sometimes done, in a sense embracing the intervening and surrounding waters as well as the upland -- in other words, as descriptive of the area comprising the islands.

This conclusion has support in the general rule that statutes passed for the benefit of dependent Indian tribes or communities are to be liberally construed, doubtful expressions being resolved in favor of the Indians. Choate v. Trapp, 224 U. S. 665, 224 U. S. 675, and cases cited. And it has further support in the facts that, save for the defendant's

Page 248 U. S. 90

conduct in 1916, the statute from the time of its enactment has been treated, as stated in the opinion of the Alaska court, by the Indians and the public as reserving the adjacent fishing grounds as well as the upland, and that, in regulations prescribed by the Secretary of the Interior on February 9, 1915, the Indians are recognized prescribed by the Secretary of the Interior on issued for erecting salmon traps at these islands.

These views are decisive of the suit and sustain the decree below.

Decree affirmed.

[Footnote 1]

House Ex. Docs. 50th Cong. 1st Sess. vol. 10, p. 64, vol. 13, p. 34; Sen.Mis.Doc. No. 144, 53d Cong.2d Sess.; Sen.Doc. No. 275, 55th Cong.2d Sess.

[Footnote 2]

House Ex.Docs. 50th Cong.2d Sess. vol. 10, p. cii; House Mis.Docs. 52d Cong. 1st Sess. vol. 50, part 9, pp. 27-29, 188.