What will invariably get everyone’s attention about this case is it is the second 5-4 decision where Justice Gorsuch has joined the four more liberal Justices to rule in favor of a tribe. And a ruling in the Court’s most interesting tribal case of the term is yet to come. But none of this should distract from the holding of this case.
The Supreme Court answered yes to the question in Herrera v. Wyoming of whether an old treaty allowing Native Americans to hunt on federal land is still valid. According to an amicus brief filed by the Crow Tribe “[a]t least nineteen tribes, in at least a dozen treaties, reserved for themselves the right to hunt on Federal lands away from their respective reservations.”
In 1868 the Crow Tribe ceded most of its territory in what is now Montana and Wyoming to the United States in exchange for an agreement the Crow could “hunt on the unoccupied lands of the United State.” Clayvin Herrera invoked this treaty to defend against a charge of violating state law by off-season hunting in Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming.
In a 5-4 opinion the Supreme Court held that the treaty’s hunting rights survived Wyoming’s statehood and that lands in the Bighorn National Forest aren’t categorically “occupied” because they are in a national reserve.