BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation is suing Idaho Gov. Brad Little and state wildlife officials in federal court, contending the state has wrongly denied the tribe hunting rights guaranteed by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Bridger.
The lawsuit, filed in Idaho’s U.S. District Court earlier this week, asks a judge to declare that the Northwestern Band is protected under the treaty. Attorneys for the state didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
On its surface, the legal case could come down to whether one of the Native American leaders who signed the treaty was representing the Northwestern Band along with other bands of the Shoshone Nation, and whether the Northwestern Band itself has remained a cohesive unit in the time since.
But at the heart of the dispute is a dilemma faced by many Native American governments across the U.S. who sometimes find themselves at odds with game wardens, mining companies, water users or other groups as they try to preserve their use of the land they were promised in treaties signed centuries ago. Tribes have increasingly turned to the legal system to interpret and enforce those treaties.
“For thousands of years the bands of the Shoshone nation and their ancestors have hunted and subsisted on the land in various parts of the Great Basin and throughout the Shoshone nation’s expansive territory,” attorney Ryan Frazier wrote in the lawsuit, noting that they lived nomadically across 125,000 square miles (about 323,749 square kilometers) of prairie, forest and mountains in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Nevada.
But as white pioneers, gold miners and Mormon families moved West, demand for natural resources and land increased, causing tension between Native American tribes and settlers. The conflicts culminated in the Bear River Massacre of 1863, when the U.S. military slaughtered between 200-500 Shoshone men, women and children near what is now Preston, Idaho.
Eventually, the federal government and Native American leaders signed the 1868 treaty at Fort Bridger, ceding land to the United States. In exchange, the tribes were offered some guarantees, including the right to hunt on unoccupied lands.
Today, the Northwestern Band doesn’t have reservation land and its tribal offices are in Brigham City, Utah. Historically, members of the band would spend time fishing near what is now Salmon, Idaho, would hunt big game in western Wyoming and hunt and gather in southern Idaho and Utah. Winters were often spent in southeastern Idaho.
According to the lawsuit, the state of Idaho doesn’t recognize that the northwestern bands of the Shoshone nation were part of the Fort Bridger Treaty, and doesn’t believe that members of the federally recognized Northwestern Band have the right to hunt on unoccupied lands pursuant to the treaty.
Some Northwestern Band tribal members have faced criminal convictions after Idaho game wardens said they were hunting without tags. In 1997, two brothers were found guilty for hunting out of season in Idaho, though they had hunting tags issued by the Northwestern Band. Shane and Wayde Warner appealed their convictions, claiming treaty rights under the Fort Bridger treaty.
Though the Idaho Court of Appeals agreed that the Northwestern Band was represented by the tribal leaders who signed the Fort Bridger Treaty, it said the band hadn’t maintained enough political continuity to maintain its rights.
In 2019, two more tribal members were cited in Idaho for hunting without tags. That criminal case is on hold while the federal lawsuit moves forward.
Similar lawsuits in other states have been successful. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a member of the Crow tribe who was fined for hunting elk in Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest. The Crow tribe member successfully argued that when his tribe gave up land in present-day Montana and Wyoming under a 1868 treaty signed at Fort Laramie, the tribe retained the right to hunt on the land.