Washington state Indian tribes: hunters without borders

The December air would soon be frosted with snow. Deer were headed down from the mountains to get away from the coming cold.

Scott Schuyler shouldered his rifle. He’d hiked several miles through the Mount-Baker Snoqualmie National Forest; then he stopped.

He reached a sign marking state park land, where hunting is not allowed.

“This is where I turn around,” said Schuyler, an Upper Skagit tribal member.

The path Schuyler hiked curves along a crystal-clear mountain stream. For as long as people remember, it has been ideal hunting ground.

“My ancestors walked this way,” he said.

Schuyler, an avid hunter, moved deftly and silently past trees dating back centuries. Those same trees sheltered men who harvested deer with spears. Giant boulders and rocky ledges, smoothed by rushing water, offered Schuyler places to rest. He gazed up at the ridgeline, counting mountain goats.

The path once carried his ancestors farther into the forest. To stop, to turn back, is not the way of the Coast Salish Indian.

State and federal regulations curb the hunting of endangered wildlife and protect developed areas from gunfire, but American Indians say those laws also violate the terms of treaties they signed with the federal government more than 150 years ago.

Before settlers reached Washington, only Indians hunted here. While tribal hunters still take to the hills to seek meat to feed their families and to offer in ceremonies, their take amounts to less than 10 percent of all the animals harvested here.

“Tribes should be allowed to hunt and gather the resources they need,” Schuyler said. “People don’t understand that the tribes ceded away part of our ancestral lands in order to retain these rights.”

For tribes in the Pacific Northwest, years of courtroom battles over fishing rights only tell part of the story. The continued ability to harvest fish is recognized as the bedrock of the region’s tribal culture. But hunting for deer, elk, bear and mountain goat is just as integral to Coast Salish life.

Before state lines were drawn and federal officials began tracking wildlife numbers, Indians from what is now Western Washington traveled over the spine of the Cascade Mountain range to hunt. Some tribes living on Puget Sound say their ancestors historically journeyed as far as Montana or Wyoming to hunt the plains for bison.

Questions about fishing rights for the Tulalips, Stillaguamish and many other Coast Salish tribes were resolved in the 1970s, when U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt ruled half of the region’s fish harvest for local Indian fishermen. The Treaty of Point Elliott, which covers tribes in Snohomish County, was signed in 1855, one of a handful of such pacts entered in Western Washington between tribes and the federal government.

While many non-Indian fishermen argue that Boldt’s interpretation of the treaty gives unfair advantages to Indian fishermen, tribal leaders say the treaty’s fishing clause is restrictive when compared with the rights under the treaty related to the hunting. While tribal fisherman are restricted to “usual and accustomed areas,” the treaty states that Indians are allowed to hunt on all “open and unclaimed land.”

That means Indian hunters have a right to roam all undeveloped areas from here to Glacier National Park in Montana, at the very minimum, said Todd Wilbur, a natural resources manager for the Swinomish Tribe in LaConner.

That’s not how state officials interpret the treaty, said Nate Pamplin, a policy coordinator with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Until a federal judge rules otherwise, enforcement officers will follow guidelines set by state judges. Those rulings limit Indians who want to hunt under tribal permits to the land their ancestors ceded to the federal government. Indians also can hunt in other areas if they can prove that their ancestors regularly hunted there.

State officials consider national forests to be “open and unclaimed” lands as described in the treaties, according to state documents. Many tribes also have agreements allowing them to hunt on private timberland.

The area tribal members ceded under the Point Elliott Treaty is about one-fifth of the state, from Whatcom County, along the eastern side of Puget Sound and into northern Pierce County.

“There are some tribes that would disagree with the rulings, but they provide the guidance by which the state Department of Fish and Wildlife operates,” Pamplin said.

Tribal leaders hesitate to spell out exactly how they feel the treaties are being violated in relation to hunting — that’s for another day, in court, they say. Most members of the Upper Skagit Tribe, based in Sedro-Woolley, would stay within the historic ceded area even if they had the right to hunt anywhere in the country, Schuyler said.

“It’s an issue of principle,” he said.

Tribal hunters say their treaty rights only will be honored if a federal judge rules in their favor, like Boldt did for tribal fishermen. Any restriction on tribal hunting grounds is in violation of the treaties, Wilbur said.

“We need a hunting-and-gathering federal rights case to define ‘open and unclaimed land,’” Wilbur said.

Tension on the ground

The idea that Indians could enjoy more hunting rights than they already have roils many non-Indians.

Indian hunters should observe state regulations or stay on their reservations, said Shane Wilkins, a hunting guide based in southern Washington.

“We’re being asked to pay for things that happened 150 years ago,” Wilkins said. “Isn’t everybody in America equal now?”

In hunting circles, rumors about Indian hunters spread fast. Online forums are chock-full of anecdotes, but few can be substantiated.

“I’ve heard horror stories,” Wilkins said. “I hear tribal hunters go up there on public lands and they just slaughter the elk. They shoot cows, they shoot calves, they shoot bulls. They shoot the hell out of ‘em.”

Wilkins admitted that he’s never seen such activities but said those stories circulate among hunters and are told at meetings with state wildlife officials.

Three Tulalip tribal members were convicted in 1999 of shooting elk and leaving them to die near Mount St. Helens. There are similar stories about non-Indian poachers.

“There are always a few bad apples in every group,” Schuyler said.

Tribal leaders say they do what they can to avoid confrontations that sometimes occur in the forest. It’s dangerous because people are carrying rifles, Schuyler said.

“We’ve been confronted many times on occasions by other hunters,” he said.

Often, Schuyler said, the insults tossed at them are racist. Tribal hunters aren’t perfect, he said, but it’s easy to find the same problems among non-Indian hunters.

Fred Matt, executive director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, said many Indian hunters do all of their hunting for the year in one trip, then dole the meat out to elders and other tribal members. When non-Indians see more than one animal in a truck bed, they assume the Indians are taking every animal they see, but they likely are hunting legally under their tribes’ laws, he said.

“One individual went up and killed two or three moose, then parked at a bar,” said Matt, a Salish and Kootenai tribal leader based in Montana. “The non-Indians just came unglued.”

To avoid future conflicts, the tribe instated a single-moose limit for hunters, he said. It also began turning over its hunting data to state officials. Those numbers showed that Salish and Kootenai hunters were taking only a small percentage of the state’s total wildlife harvest, Matt said.

That’s also true in Washington. According to data compiled by the state and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Indian hunters take about 8 percent of the state’s total deer and elk harvest. It’s unclear how many Indians hunt under tribal permits.

Preserving wildlife

Tribal and state officials first met in 1998 to negotiate hunting rights and plan co-management policies to protect the state’s wildlife. The agreement included plans to share harvest reports and allow tribes to conduct ceremonial hunts out of season. Since then, the Tulalip, Lummi, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Upper Skagit and other tribes have met each year with the state to update their shared management agreement.

The agreement led to joint efforts throughout the region, including a moratorium on the hunting of the North Cascade elk herd, which had dwindled from 1,700 in the early 1980s to fewer than 350 in recent years. The tribes spent nearly $1 million to restore the herd, in part by moving about 100 elk from the large Mount St. Helens herd in southwest Washington. By 2007, the herd’s population had rebounded enough that tribal hunters were able to harvest elk for the first time in recent memory.

“(Elk is) part of our culture,” Stillaguamish tribal leader Shawn Yanity said shortly after the hunt. “It was part of our ceremonies, our gatherings, even if you had a funeral or something like that.”

When Indians hunting with tribal permits are caught doing something illegal, they are turned over to their own tribal governments for prosecution, said Pamplin, the state policy coordinator.

The state does not keep track of how many violators are referred to tribal governments, said Craig Bartlett, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman.

Sustenance and culture

Many tribal governments issue special hunting permits throughout the year for designated cultural hunters, who harvest deer, elk and other meat to share at funerals and other ceremonies.

Those practices are at the heart of the hunting issue, Schuyler said.

The tribe last week mourned the death of one of its members, he said. Tribal hunters provided meat for everyone who attended the funeral. In tribal culture, traditional foods are part of the grieving process, he said.

“We need the ability to go out and get these resources when something like this arises,” regardless of the hunting calendar, Schuyler said.

According to a management agreement between the Upper Skagit and other tribes and the state, tribal wildlife officials must notify state officials when a ceremonial hunt is about to begin, and report ceremonial harvest data to the state in an annual report.

For the same reasons, Indians should be allowed to hunt where they feel it’s appropriate, Schuyler said. Mountain goats, for example, have for centuries been prized among Coast Salish Indians. Upper Skagit tribal members have found signs of ancient campgrounds that allowed Indian hunters access to the mountaintops, where the elusive goats scale rocky cliffs.

Indian hunters must have the right to return to those places, regardless of who owns the land, Schuyler said.

Another Boldt decision?

Lawyers for the tribes are so mired in negotiating details about managing fisheries along with the state and federal government that hunting issues have taken a back seat in courtrooms, said Mason Morisset, an attorney for the Tulalip Tribes.

“I don’t think there’s any disagreement that it’s a problem, but there are lots of problems,” Morisset said. “We can’t solve them all at once.”

Until then, Schuyler said, Indians must educate non-Indians about hunting and other traditional practices. Too often, Schuyler said, non-Indians aren’t aware of the ancient context.

“People see us hunting, people see us fishing,” Schuyler said. “And they get angry because they don’t understand how we got to this point.”

He walked back to his truck, empty-handed save for his rifle. The rig was parked at a gravel-covered lot near the trailhead.

“I’d gladly have all our land back, but that’s not going to happen,” Schuyler said.

Krista Kapralos: 425-339-3422, kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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