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Historian says Tract D history tells another story


The Sentinel’s article of April 29, 2015, on retrocession of Tract D in Klickitat County reached readers far away, one of them a professor at William and Mary College in Virginia, Andrew Fisher. Fisher contacted The Sentinel to ask why we did not cover the Yakama Nation side of the story, to which we answered: because no one from the nation responded to our requests for comment. Fisher then submitted the following article, asking that it run in the interests of complete perspectives.

History has a funny way of coming back around to bite people on the rear end. For some officials and residents of Klickitat County, though, there is nothing amusing about the Yakama Nation’s petition for retrocession of legal authority over tribal members in the southwestern portion of their reservation.

In a recent letter to the Department of Interior, County Prosecutor David Quesnel complained that the tribe has unfairly persisted with the “erroneous claim” that some 99,000 acres of county land—commonly called Tract D—actually lies within reservation boundaries and should therefore be subject to tribal jurisdiction. Quesnel’s charge is ironic, to say the least, because it was a chain of unforced errors and bungled decisions by the federal government that led to the area’s exclusion from the Yakama homeland in the first place. The tribe has certainly persisted in its claim, but not without good reason. 

Tract D includes the eastern slopes of Mt. Adams, which many tribal members regard as a sacred peak and a symbol of their 1855 treaty with the U.S. government. It also contains the vast root-digging grounds known as Táak, now called Camas Prairie, where Yakamas traditionally harvested camas. Because of its cultural significance, tribal leaders believed that this area had been set aside as part of their reservation, and Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens told them as much at the treaty council. In a boundary description based entirely on natural features, Stevens explained that the line ran “down the main chain of the Cascades Mountains south of Mt. Adams,” then east along a lesser divide that connects to the Satus Mountains.

Unfortunately for the Yakamas, the Office of Indian Affairs subsequently misplaced the map showing the correct boundary, then failed to survey and mark the reservation lines for another 30 years. By the time it finally got around to the job in 1890, white settlers had already moved into Tract D and founded the present-day communities of Glenwood, Fulda, and Laurel. The government surveyor sent to establish the southwestern boundary only made matters worse by misreading the treaty calls and drawing the line about 20 miles shy of the Cascades, cutting some 500,000 acres from the western end of the reservation. Subsequent surveys in 1900 and 1907 muddled things even further, adding back some acreage but drawing straight-line boundaries that defied the original description and excluded Tract D.

Yakama leaders cried foul each time and tried to block further land cessions until the boundary question had been resolved. As Louis Simpson said in 1897, “You know that no person can sell anything that has been stolen….So we say to you our reservation ain’t settled and therefore we can’t say to you we are going to sell you our surplus land….Now when that piece of reservation or old boundary line is renewed and that piece of land is returned to the Indians then after that we can talk about negotiations. That is all.”

That wasn’t all, though. The U.S. government refused to take no for an answer, and in 1904 it made the Yakamas an offer they couldn’t refuse. Congress arbitrarily passed a law restoring more than 293,000 acres to the reservation but also providing for the sale of so-called surplus lands and leaving Tract D outside the reservation. The Supreme Court upheld the mistaken boundary in 1913, nonsensically allowing the straight lines to stand while affirming that the reservation was defined “by the greater boundaries of nature which the Indians understood and estimated, and so held that the main ridge of the Cascade Mountains is the western boundary.” Faced with such crooked logic, some Yakamas must have wondered whether white men actually bothered to read the documents in which they placed so much faith.

Still, they refused to abandon their claim to Tract D, and in 1930 the federal government had to admit its blunder when the original reservation map was found among some unrelated records (apparently, it had been misfiled under “M” for Montana—or maybe “M” for mismanagement!). This discovery led to the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) judgment that Klickitat County officials say settled the matter once and for all.

Although it is true that the federal government paid the Yakama Nation $2.1 million for the lands wrongfully excluded from the reservation (a mere fifty cents per acre, the estimated value in 1855), tribal leaders had little choice but to accept the money. The ICC, created in 1946 as part of the Termination policy then in vogue, could provide monetary compensation but not restore property to the tribes. “Every time it comes to us giving up our land it is fine and dandy with the federal government. But when we try to get some of our land back we are told to forget it,” said Tribal Chairman Robert Jim in 1970. Even so, Yakama leaders insisted that the federal government return the stolen property still in its possession, which the President Nixon did by executive order in 1972. That gave back roughly 21,000 acres, including half of Mt. Adams, but none of the land currently owned by non-Indians.

The Yakama Nation is not demanding the return of any land today. It is simply asking the federal government to restore tribal jurisdiction over its own members in an area the tribe has always and rightfully recognized as part of the reservation. Public Law 280, which unilaterally stripped away tribal authority in 1953, was part of the same Termination policy that forced the Yakama Nation to accept money for sacred lands it had never wanted to sell.

Andrew Fisher is Associate Professor of History at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virg. He received his Ph.D. from Arizona State University in 2003. His research and teaching interests focus on modern Native American history, environmental history, and the American West. His first book, Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity (University of Washington Press, 2010), examines off-reservation communities and processes of tribal ethnogenesis in the Columbia Basin. His current project is a biography of the Yakama actor, technical advisor, and activist Nipo Strongheart. He currently directs the Environmental Science and Policy program.


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