SCOTUS Backs Native Americans' Right to Hunt

United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC, USA.
By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 20, 2019 1:00 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the hunting rights of a Native American tribe survived U.S. expansion into the West.

In Herrera v. Wyoming, the the High Court voted 5-4 in saying the Crow tribe's rights did not expire when Wyoming became part of the United States in 1890. It was a closely watched decision by tribes across the country, as well as hunting, ranching, and wildlife groups. The decision also marked the second time that Justice Neil Gorsuch has voted for tribal rights in close decisions. Tribal lawyers said it gives Native Americans new hope.

The Right to Hunt

Clayvin Herrera, a Crow tribe member, had been convicted for hunting violations in the Bighorn National Forest. He claimed a right to hunt there under a treaty between the tribe and the federal government. Wyoming argued that the right expired upon statehood.

In the 1868 treaty, the tribe ceded over 30 million acres to the U.S. In exchange, the federal government said the tribe "shall have the right to hunt on unoccupied lands of the United States so long as game may be found thereon, and as long as peace subsists among the whites and the Indians on the borders of the hunting districts."

Ruling for Herrera, the Supreme Court noted that the Crow had inhabited the land for more than three centuries. Forrest Tahdooahnippah, a partner at Dorsey & White, said the decision shows the High Court is "reinvigorated" to give "meaning and life to the treaty rights of American Indians." Gorsuch, it seems, is key to that new life. He also voted with the liberal bloc on the court in Washington v. Cougar Den, which held that an Indian tribe was exempt from taxes for importing motor vehicle fuel.

Meaning and Life

The controversy started when Herrera and fellow Crow members were hunting on their reservation in Montana. They followed elk that had crossed into the forest of neighboring Wyoming. They shot three elk and took the meat back to the reservation.

Lillian Alvernaz, a fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, said the Herrera decision was a "huge win." She said it stands for the tribe's right to hunt and for Native American rights in general. "Throughout the history of colonization, tribes have upheld their end of treaties while the federal government has consistently fallen short of its obligations," she said. "We're hopeful that this ruling marks a new day, one where the federal government lives up to its treaty obligations and recommits to the important principles of tribal sovereignty and self-determination of tribes in the United States."

Bloomberg reported the Trump administration backed Herrera's claim that the tribe was entitled to hunt in the national forest.

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