Washington Supreme Court Reverses Itself In Century-Old Case, Affirms Yakama Nation Treaty Rights

File photo. The reservation of the Yakama Nation in south-central Washington covers over 2,000 square miles, with areas patrolled by tribal, city and county law enforcement.
File photo. The reservation of the Yakama Nation in south-central Washington covers over 2,000 square miles. Courtesy of Yakama Nation

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The Washington State Supreme Court reversed a century-old ruling Friday against a Yakama Nation tribal member for fishing outside the reservation.

The 1916 ruling mandated criminal charges against Alec Towessnute for fishing outside the Yakama reservation on traditional fishing grounds – a right assured by the Yakama’s Treaty of 1855 with the federal government. He was arrested near Prosser for using a gaff hook, a traditional way of fishing.

The 1916 ruling also characterized Native peoples as “a dangerous child” who “squandered vast areas of fertile land before our eyes.”

On Friday, current state Supreme Court justices unanimously called the past ruling racist and unjust in a new order read by Raquel Montoya-Lewis, the court’s first Native American justice.

“This court characterized the Native people of this nation quote as a dangerous child who squandered vast areas of fertile land before our eyes. Today, we take the opportunity presented to us by the descendants of Mr. Towessnute to repudiate this case, its language, its conclusions and its mischaracterization of the Yakama people,” Montoya-Lewis said.

Emily Washines is a Yakama Nation historian. She says the modern court’s reversal goes beyond fishing rights.

“There was a number of different ways they were misclassifying our people. They were misinterpreting our treaty rights,” Washines told NWPB Friday. “This continues into this aspect of having Native people fight for not only our fishing rights but for our identity and who we are.”

In 2014, Washington legislators passed a bill allowing courts to vacate tribal fishing convictions before 1975. A year later, the state Supreme Court declined to vacate Towessnute’s conviction because of missing court records. 

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