On September 8, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Metlakatlan Indian Community had the right to fish in off-reservation waters. The court based its decision on its determination that Congress had intended the 1891 Act to grant the community the right to continue fishing in order to support themselves and future generations. (Metlakatla Indian Community v. Dunleavy, No. 21-35185 (9th Cir. Sept. 8, 2022) (Decision).)
Background to the Case
According to the decision, the Metlakatlan community and their Tsimshian ancestors have inhabited the coast of the Pacific Northwest and fished in its waters for centuries. In 1887, President Grover Cleveland invited the community to relocate from British Columbia, Canada, to the Annette Islands, which was then the United States Territory of Alaska. In 1891, Congress passed a statute, the 1891 Act, establishing the Annette Islands Reserve as a reservation for the community. (Decision at 3–4.) In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that the reservation boundaries extended 3,000 feet from the shoreline of the Annette Islands and were reserved for exclusive use by the community. (Decision at 10.) In 1972, Alaska amended its constitution to restrict the entry of new participants into commercial fisheries in state waters. In 2020, the community sued Alaskan officials in federal district court for attempting to subject them to the limited entry program. The community argued that the 1891 Act granted them the right to fish in off-reservation waters, where they have traditionally fished for centuries. The district court disagreed and held that the 1891 Act provided no such right. (Decision at 14–15.)
The Ninth Circuit reversed the decision of the district court. (Decision at 4.) The court considered whether the community had an implied fishing right, relying on statutory interpretation to determine the meaning of the 1891 Act and how it should be interpreted in the case. For example, the court provided an analysis of how the Indian canon of construction had required the court, in previous cases, to infer rights that would support the purpose of a reservation. (Decision at 16.)
Next, the court determined that the question of whether the community had an implied fishing right had been answered in the U.S. Supreme Court case Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States, 248 U.S. 78 (1981). In Alaska Pacific Fisheries, the Supreme Court held that the community had an implied fishing right because the main purpose of creating the reservation was to encourage the community to become self-sustaining. (Decision at 12.) The community for centuries had used fishing for personal consumption and commercial purposes. The Supreme Court concluded that for the community to be self-sustaining they would need access to waters where they could fish. Therefore, the circuit court relied on the Supreme Court ruling that the community had an implied fishing right.
The circuit court then turned to the question concerning the scope of the community’s implied fishing right. The court relied on Congress’ intent when passing the 1891 Act, determining that Congress had passed the act with the expectation that the community would continue to fish in order to support themselves and future generations.
Finally, the court held that it was unnecessary to draw boundaries for where the community could fish because the community had always fished in the areas in question. (Decision at 20–22.)
The court concluded that the 1891 Act preserved for the Metlakatlan Indian Community and its members an implied right to nonexclusive fishing in off-reservation waters where they have traditionally fished for centuries. (Decision at 28.)
Prepared by Olivia Kane-Cruz, Law Library intern, under the supervision of Louis Myers, Legal Reference Librarian
Law Library of Congress, October 25, 2022
Read more Global Legal Monitor articles.