As the United States expanded and its territories received statehood, questions naturally emerged about how the nature of relationships between the territories and Indian tribes on those lands would change. These questions were complicated by a changing perspective on the inherent sovereignty of Indian Tribes and how that informed what the courts found Congress could legitimately say or do when it came to (re)defining the scope of treaties. Last Term, in Herrera v. Wyoming,1 the Supreme Court held that offseason hunting activity by a member of the Crow Tribe (Apsaalooke) was protected under an 1868 Treaty between the United States and the Crow Tribe and that the relevant terms did not automatically expire upon Wyoming’s statehood.2 The Court’s decision in Herrera is a positive signal indicating its willingness to force the State to remain faithful to the promises of its treaties; this demonstrates a hopeful shift back toward the foundational principles of Federal Indian law that have suffered under the expansion of the plenary doctrine.
The Crow Tribe has been in modern-day Montana for over three centuries.3 Both before and after American settlers moved west, its “members hunted game for subsistence.”4 In 1868, the Crow Tribe ceded much of its territory by treaty, confining itself to an 8 million acre reservation in present-day Montana.5 The United States promised in exchange that the Crow Tribe “shall have the right to hunt on the unoccupied lands of the United States so long as game may be found thereon, and as long as peace subsists . . . on the borders of the hunting districts.”6 The Commissioner of Indian Affairs “assured them that the Tribe would have ‘the right to hunt upon [the ceded land] as long as the game lasts.’”7 Hunting has been and remains central to the Crow Tribe’s way of life.8 Even after subsequent regulations by the Indian Department, Tribe members regularly hunted near the Little Bighorn River.9
Between the signing of the Treaty and the present case, Wyoming was established as a territory,10 was admitted as a state,11 and created a National Forest from an “area made up of lands ceded by the Crow Tribe in 1868 . . . known as the Bighorn National Forest.”12 Wyoming joined a number of other states that were admitted into the Union in the decade before the Treaty.13 Each of their admission acts included a clause ensuring each state was “on an equal footing with the original [thirteen] States, in all respects whatever.”14
In the present day, almost 150 years after the 1868 Treaty, Clayvin Herrera, a member of the Crow Tribe in Montana, “pursued a group of elk past the boundary of the [Crow] reservation and into the neighboring Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming.”15 Herrera’s group shot several bull elk, returned to the reservation with the meat, and was later charged by the State of Wyoming for “taking elk off-season or without a state hunting license and with being an accessory to the same.”16 In state trial court, Herrera insisted that the 1868 Treaty protected his right to hunt “where and when he did,”17 but his argument was unsuccessful and the trial court denied his pretrial motion to dismiss.18 Herrera received a suspended sentence, a fine, and a suspension of hunting privileges for three years.19
On appeal, “[t]he central question facing the state appellate court was whether the Crow Tribe’s off-reservation hunting right was still valid.”20 In a separate 1995 case, Crow Tribe of Indians v. Repsis,21 the Court of Appeals had “review[ed] the same treaty right.”22 The appellate court decided that this previous decision “merited issue-preclusive effect against Herrera because he is a member of the Crow Tribe.”23 In the Repsis decision, the Tenth Circuit relied on Ward v. Race Horse,24 which found that statehood had changed the obligations of the Treaty.25 Consequently, the Wyoming state appellate court found that likewise, here “the Crow Tribe’s 1868 Treaty right expired upon Wyoming’s statehood.”26 It rejected Herrera’s argument that the Supreme Court’s decision in Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians27 had repudiated Race Horse and consequently nullified the applicability of Repsis.28 Further, the court indicated that “even if the 1868 Treaty right survived Wyoming’s entry into the Union, it did not permit Herrera to hunt in Bighorn National Forest” because the treaty right only applied on “unoccupied” lands, and “the national forest became categorically ‘occupied’ when it was created.”29 The Wyoming Supreme Court denied a petition for review.30
The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded.31 Writing for the Court, Justice Sotomayor32 found the Crow Tribe’s hunting rights were valid under the Treaty.33 The Court agreed with Herrera that Mille Lacs, not Race Horse, controlled.34 The Court emphasized that though Mille Lacs did not explicitly overturn Race Horse, it effectively undermined both its lines of reasoning.35 Mille Lacs addressed “an 1837 Treaty that guaranteed . . . the privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering in ceded lands ‘during the pleasure of the President.’”36 The Mille Lacs Court indicated that Minnesota’s statehood did not automatically abrogate existing treaty rights of the bands of Chippewa Indians, “entirely reject[ing] the ‘equal footing’ reasoning applied in Race Horse”37 and finding that treaty rights could coexist with state sovereignty over natural resources.38 It also repudiated Race Horse’s second rationale. Specifically, it rejected the argument that the privilege in the Treaty was “temporary and precarious” because Congress implicitly anticipated that conditions would change.39 The majority clarified that “Congress ‘must clearly express’ any intent to abrogate Indian treaty rights.”40 Finding no evidence in this Treaty that it was meant “to expire at statehood,” the right remained.41 The majority noted that under Mille Lacs, “[s]tatehood is irrelevant to this analysis” without “Congress’ clear intent to abrogate a treaty.”42 Therefore, while Race Horse was not expressly overruled in Mille Lacs, the latter “methodically repudiated” the former’s logic.43
The Court then turned to whether principles of issue preclusion blocked Herrera’s argument in light of the Tenth Circuit’s decision, which had relied on Race Horse to conclude that the Treaty right did terminate upon Wyoming’s statehood.44 Recognizing the important rationale for issue preclusion, the Court noted that sometimes, “[e]ven when the elements of issue preclusion are met . . . an exception may be warranted if there has been an intervening ‘change in [the] applicable legal context.’”45 Here, an exception was defensible because Mille Lacs repudiated the reasoning in Race Horse upon which Repsis relied.46
Finally, the Court addressed the merits of the case. It applied Mille Lacs to reach the issue of whether “Wyoming’s admission to the Union abrogated the Crow Tribe’s . . . hunting right,” and found that was not the case.47 First, Wyoming’s Statehood Act did not explicitly “show that Congress intended to end the 1868 Treaty hunting right” as Mille Lacs requires.48 Consequently, “Wyoming’s arguments boil down to an attempt to read the treaty impliedly to terminate at statehood, precisely as Mille Lacs forbids.”49 The Court also rejected Wyoming’s argument that even if the treaty right was intact after Wyoming’s statehood, the hunting was not protected because the forest lands are now categorically occupied.50 Justice Sotomayor noted that the word “occupation” referred to settlement and “the Tribe’s residence inside the reservation boundaries,”51 rather than simply to overall government control over the territory.52
Justice Alito dissented.53 He indicated that the majority’s “interpretation of the treaty is debatable and is plainly contrary” to Race Horse.54, 139 S. Ct. at 1703 (Alito, J., dissenting). Justice Alito argued that Mille Lacs does not “unquestionably” undercut the Court’s reasoning in Race Horse as the majority suggested.55 Mille Lacs may be reasonably interpreted as applying the implicit-repudiation principle to the facts before it and reaching a different conclusion, rather than dispensing with the implicit-repudiation principle altogether in a way that would render Race Horse moot on that issue.56 Consequently, the dissent reasoned, there may not have actually been the sea change in legal context to merit overriding the issue-preclusive effect of Repsis.57 Second, and more importantly to Justice Alito, Repsis decided the question of whether Bighorn National Forest was “unoccupied,” and this holding was not subject to reversal by Mille Lacs or any subsequent decision.58 The Tenth Circuit’s reasoning remained valid: “‘unoccupied’ land within the meaning of the treaty meant land that was open for commercial or residential use, and since the creation of the national forest precluded these activities, it followed that the land was no longer ‘unoccupied’ in the relevant sense.”59
The Court’s decision in Herrera is a positive signal that “affirm[s] that treaty rights . . . continue in perpetuity unless expressly repealed by an act of Congress.”60
This demonstrates a hopeful shift back toward the foundational principles of Federal Indian law that have suffered under the expansion of the plenary power doctrine. In order to understand the significance of Herrera, it is helpful to first grapple with a short history of how the Supreme Court has handled the treaty power. As a starting point, the Marshall Trilogy and the core principles it put forward for interpreting Federal Indian law offer a window into an era of jurisprudence that recognized and respected the inherent sovereignty of Tribes and saw them as “equal entities” to the United States in treaty negotiations. With the introduction of the Indian plenary power doctrine, however, this conception changed and tribal authority was seen as conditional, premised on the more absolute sovereignty of the United States. In light of this shift, Herrera is a significant moment; it abrogated judicial exercise of plenary power without clear statements from Congress.
The foundational principles of Federal Indian law were set by a triad of cases in the mid-1800s known as the Marshall Trilogy.61 One of the core principles arising from the Trilogy was that “[a]n Indian Tribe possesses, in the first instance, all the powers of any sovereign state.”62 In these foundational opinions, Chief Justice Marshall “was highly deferential to the complete autonomy of . . . Tribe[s] and guardedly critical of the political branches” when they “refused to enforce the treaty obligations of protection.”63 This reverence for Indian sovereignty “and the corresponding recognition of limited national power” colored policy and jurisprudence into the Reconstruction era.64 The United States primarily “view[ed] Indians as distinct nations with whom the United States dealt through treaties.”65 Functionally, this meant that “the relationship upon which [treaties] were premised was a government-to-government relationship between Indian Tribes and the federal government” rather than any superseding federal power to govern Tribes directly.66 As a result, Tribes did not face any significant constraints, either statutory or treaty-based, until the mid-1800s.67 Even after, the general principles of the Trilogy guided the Court’s understanding of the rights of Tribe members for over a century.68
Though this broad trend contained internal ups and downs in the intervening time, such as the diminishment of tribal rights during the Allotment era,69 the Trilogy was still “invoked in virtually every case to support the Court’s decisions” even almost a century later.70 This period was marked by an “approach . . . [that] construe[d] laws in light of the nation’s tradition of recognizing independent tribal powers to govern their territory and the people within it,” and that in “interpreting ambiguous treaties and laws . . . employed canons of construction to give the benefit of doubt to Indians.”71
The Court deviated in significant part from its protective stance toward inherent tribal sovereignty with the creation and subsequent expansion of the plenary power doctrine. One of the first instances of the plenary power doctrine was in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock,72 where the Court indicated that “[p]lenary authority over . . . the Indians has been exercised by Congress from the beginning.”73 In stark contrast to Chief Justice Marshall’s characterization of treaty negotiations as between two sovereigns,74 the Hitchcock Court “characteriz[ed] Congress’ power as plenary,” and “implied that, while the United States’ relationship with tribes developed through mutual negotiation, these negotiations were merely an exercise of Congress’ absolute power over tribes.”75
At first, Indian plenary power was at least only exercised by politically accountable parts of government.76 But “beginning in the late-twentieth century, the Supreme Court . . . arrogated to itself the plenary power it previously rationalized for Congress and [began] defining federal Indian law in an exercise of judicial plenary power, similarly without any lawful justification.”77 This expansion began under Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe,78 which introduced a “dormant”79 plenary power doctrine. In and after Oliphant, the Court began to look at the record and decide for itself what was necessary.80 Even if the political branches did not make an explicit indication, the “Court blatantly ignor[ed] clear statutory or treaty language to arrive at its preferred normative conclusions.”81 The plenary power doctrine itself — when exercised with clear congressional statement — has already been the subject of scrutiny insofar as it lacks constitutional basis.82 The Court only exacerbated this by expanding the doctrine when it began to unilaterally change the scope of treaties after Oliphant.83, Ennis, supra note 81, at 681 (describing the Court’s expansive, even unwarranted reading of an ambiguous treaty in Washington v. Wash. State Commercial Passenger Fishing Ass’n, 442 U.S. 658 (1979)). Whereas the earlier era was marked by “defer[ence] to the political branches whenever congressional policy was not clear,”84 the Rehnquist Court in the 1980s “arrogate[d] to itself the role of reviewing and weighing non-Indian interests and, ultimately, of redesigning the sovereignty of Indian Tribes.”85 A period of “judicial minimalism” followed which, though philosophically distinct, continued this trend of limiting Native power.86 Tribal rights shrank further in the face of a Court focused on narrow holdings rather than sweeping protections; it shied from the broad core principles of the Marshall era.87
Under either the Rehnquist era or minimalist approaches to Federal Indian law, it is easy to see Herrera coming out the other way. By invoking the expanded plenary power, the Court could have exercised its discretion to weigh Indian and non-Indian interests. In this situation the Court could have considered more seriously the State’s interests in promoting ease of enforcement for National Forest employees, for example, by not allowing Tribal hunting exceptions that make it more difficult to accurately identify and apprehend violators. Under a judicial minimalism approach as well, the preclusion and precedent concerns raised by Race Horse would have counseled in the other direction, because reading Mille Lacs to repudiate Race Horse when it did not explicitly do so would be contrary to the minimalist principles. Instead, the Court enforced the Treaty. This is critical in light of the Rehnquist trend where “the [judicial] branch . . . has become all the more dangerous in its recent development of the doctrine of common law colonialism.”88 It is precisely this course of history that makes the Court’s decision in Herrera a significant signal.
The dormant expansion of the plenary power doctrine was reversed by Herrera’s refusal to accept such judicial encroachment.89 Herrera moved closer to the original conception of tribal sovereignty by following “[a] clear-statement approach based on Chief Justice Marshall’s legacy [which] . . . retain[s] a baseline of Indian sovereignty and render[s] outcomes like Oliphant deviations from that baseline.”90 In this way, though Herrera legitimizes the plenary power doctrine in part by reaffirming that Congress can repudiate treaties, it removes the dormant portion of the plenary power by insisting that Congress must now do so explicitly,91 reeling back any belief that the Court can find repudiation on its own or read into “implicit” congressional words and deeds.
This clear signal was especially critical in light of the fact that jurisprudence since the Rehnquist era is checkered at best and “has mystified both academics and practitioners,”92 demonstrating a need to right the course. This is what makes Herrera valuable. It is true that in more recent years, the Court has found in favor of tribal authority in a variety of difficult instances93 — from upholding the imposition of tribal taxes on non-Indian developments on reservations94 to more challenging tensions such as refusing to pass judgement on a Tribe’s decision to place more burdensome membership requirements for children of female members who have married outside the Tribe.95 However, other controversies — such as disagreements around the use of sovereign immunity by tribes to engage in lending practices that may have steeper fees — could counteract this trend of judicial deference to tribal authority.96 In other words, there are still instances where rather than viewing treaties as codified commitments, courts have continued to “assume the prerogative of balancing various non-Indian interests in order to prune tribal sovereignty to the Court’s own notion of what it ought to look like.”97
As a result, it is significant that in light of this broad use of dormant plenary power the Court upheld the Treaty — especially given that there was case law that could have easily allowed this to go the other way. Therefore, the Herrera decision should be seen as an affirmative choice and an affirmative signal from the Court. Herrera does not convert the doctrinal landscape completely to the Marshall era.98 But it is not trivial that the Court had two equally applicable cases and, in choosing one over another, closed the Race Horse path. In a world where congressional action and the relevant standards of clarity required for such action are paramount in delineating protections for tribes, this signal starts a trend in the right direction to provide some much needed clarity “for lower courts trying to decipher the implications of [conflicting case law].”99 Herrera is therefore a positive signal that the newest iteration of the Court will continue to move toward the foundational principles of the Marshall Trilogy.100