May 20 2019 - Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Crow Nation Treaty Rights

In a 5-4 decision, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Native American treaty rights in a case out of Wyoming on Monday. Justice Gorsuch provided the decisive vote in this case.

From the decision, "Wyoming’s statehood did not abrogate the Crow Tribe’s 1868 federal treaty right to hunt on the “unoccupied lands of the United States”; the lands of the Bighorn National Forest did not become categorically “occupied” when the forest was created."

The case stems from a hunting dispute from January 2014 when Clayvin Herrera along with other Crow tribal members stalked elk on the Crow Reservation in Montana near Eskimo Creek. Herrera and his fellow hunters followed the elk off the Crow Reservation into the Big Horn National Forest in the State of Wyoming. The hunters killed three elk in the national forest and brought the meat back to the Crow Reservation in Montana to feed themselves and members of their tribe over the winter.

Herrera asserted a Treaty right to hunt on “unoccupied lands of the United States” within territory the Crow Tribe had ceded to the United States under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868; at the time of that particular Treaty, the lands where Herrera killed the elk were part of the Crow Tribe’s unoccupied ceded territory. Wyoming charged and tried Herrera for two misdemeanors despite his Treaty-reserved right: taking an antlered big game animal without a license and being an accessory to such a taking.

Further, the Wyoming trial court denied Herrera’s motion to dismiss and granted the state’s motion to exclude any mention of Herrera’s Treaty rights at his criminal trial. Barred from even mentioning his Treaty right, Herrera was convicted of both counts. A Wyoming appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decisions and the Wyoming Supreme Court denied review. Ultimately, the Wyoming appellate court held that Mr. Herrera’s Treaty claims were not only barred under the theory that Wyoming’s admission to the Union abrogated the Crow Tribe’s Treaty rights as the 10th Circuit held in Repsis, but that Herrera’s claims were also barred by the legal doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel.

Herrera appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, presenting the question “[w]hether Wyoming’s admission to the Union or the establishment of the Bighorn National Forest abrogated the Crow Tribe of Indians’ 1868 federal Treaty right to hunt on the “unoccupied lands of the United States.”

In the Monday decision, the court held that hunting rights for the Crow tribe under a 19th Century treaty did not expire when Wyoming became a state.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote for the majority, stated, "[There isn't] any evidence in the treaty itself that Congress intended the hunting right to expire at statehood, or that the Crow Tribe would have understood it to do so."

by Wakíƞyaƞ Waánataƞ (Matt Remle)

Matt Remle (Lakota) is an editor and writer for Last Real Indians and LRInspire and the co-founder of Mazaska Talks. Follow @wakiyan7