A case about the use of culverts to allow water to flow under roads blocking the migration of salmon is about to be heard at the Supreme Court of the United States. The case, however, could affect how Native American treaties are interpreted in the future.
Washington indigenous tribes have the right, by treaty, to fish for salmon. Treaties with Native American tribes have never meant too much to the United States, and some of those spectacularly broken were on display in the Smithsonian recently.
In light of that, the salmon are more than fish, they’re a symbol of the rare kept promise. In 1905, a case about using water wheels to catch salmon and fencing out indigenous fishers went to the Supreme Court and the court sided with the treaty. And again, in the 1970s when Washington tried to denigrate treaty provisions, the Court upheld the rights of the indigenous fisher. They won again in 2001 at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The fish aren’t just fish. Broken promises are the mark of a treaty between the United States and Native American nations. In 1972 this prompted a protest called the Trail of Broken Treaties to descend on Washington, which still feels reverberation on its anniversaries.
These fish are a reminder of the rare promise kept.
Not only do tribes nationwide hunt and fish on tribal land and could be impacted in their own struggles with the states around them by a decision, it could impact one of the biggest headline stories about American and Native relations in recent years.
The Standing Rock Sioux won a legal victory against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2017 after years of protests and growing national media attention. The issue was the environmental safety of the pipeline, which runs through Standing Rock. Mass arrests of protesters came at the end of strong media coverage of the pipeline protests.
Whatever the court decides the role of treaties is today in the eventual Washington v. United States ruling, it will likely have much broader impacts than the dwindling Washington salmon population. The decision is about a promise, and what justice and the word of the United States should mean in the modern age.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.