federal Indian law, treaties, treaty rights, tribal-state relations

Document Type



Indian tribes and their members are leading a revived political, legal, and social movement to protect the nation’s natural resources. In doing so, tribes and their allies employ many effective strategies but core to the movement are the historic promises made to tribes by the United States through treaties. Tribes are asserting treaty-protected rights, which the United States Constitution upholds as the supreme law of the land, to defend the resources on which they and their ancestors have relied for generations. Those claims have resulted in significant legal victories, igniting a broader movement in favor of tribal sovereignty and securing a prominent and perpetual tribal presence in the movement and on the ground.

Given the strength of this modern movement and the centrality of treaty rights to its success, it is hard to believe that, just two generations ago, those rights faced seemingly existential threats. Notwithstanding bedrock Supreme Court precedent from the first half of the 1900s recognizing the supremacy of Indian treaties, tribal members exercising the rights those treaties guaranteed were under attack in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes, with armies of state wildlife rangers and law enforcement arresting tribal members for not following state laws and regulations. Then, in 1968, the Supreme Court cut against its earlier solicitude for tribal treaty rights by opening the door for broad state power to establish laws, rules, and regulations that could govern tribal members engaged in treaty-reserved activities. Facing escalating harassment from state authorities, the Court’s endorsement of state priorities seemed to leave little room for the meaningful exercise of treaty rights as the tribes and tribal members themselves saw fit.

But, with his 1969 decision in Sohappy v. Smith, Judge Robert Belloni began to reverse the course of that time and, in doing so, opened the modern era of tribal sovereignty over natural resources. Judge Belloni’s approach to reaching that momentous decision recognized the permanence and supremacy of tribal treaties while also accounting for the ongoing exercise of state sovereignty. Rather than approach the balance of those two interests as a zero-sum proposition, however, Judge Belloni sought and provided practical guidance pursuant to which states and tribes could work together to ensure their continued coexistence. While that coexistence would demand higher burdens and more limitations on the state’s exercise of authority, Judge Belloni also had the foresight to provide a judicial forum for resolving conflicts over those burdens and limitations and urged the parties to reach cooperative agreements beyond the courtroom doors. Judge Belloni’s approach and the Sohappy decision laid the foundation for state and federal courts struggling to balance state authority and tribal treaty rights. This article traces the legacy of the Sohappy decision across litigation in the Great Lakes region, where members of the Chippewa Tribes fought to continue their time-honored and treaty-reserved practices, various states sought to regulate those activities, and judges relied on Judge Belloni’s wisdom and insight to reach sustainable solutions.



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