‘We want to decide what’s good for us’

Delores “Dee” Pigsley

Delores “Dee” Pigsley awoke to an enormous surprise July 9: for the first time members of the U.S. Supreme Court decided that treaties signed with – and land given to – Native American tribes remains in place, at least when it comes to criminal prosecution. 

“On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the opinion for the 5-4 majority. “The federal government promised the Creek a reservation in perpetuity. Over time, Congress has diminished that reservation. It has sometimes restricted and other times expanded the Tribe’s authority. But Congress has never withdrawn the promised reservation. As a result, many of the arguments before us today follow a sadly familiar pattern. Yes, promises were made, but the price of keeping them has become too great, so now we should just cast a blind eye. We reject that thinking. If Congress wishes to withdraw its promises, it must say so.”

It’s still unknown if or how the promise will be kept from this moment on but, for Pigsley, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians and a Keizer resident, it was still a shock. 

“The biggest effect is that we actually have someone on the Supreme Court that understands treaty rights and tribal sovereignty,” Pigsley said. “What it might do is speed up some of the other understandings of Indian law, tribal governments and tribal sovereignty.”

The case the Supreme Court justices decided on is McGirt V. Oklahoma. The petitioner, Jimcy McGirt, was found guilty of sex crimes on what would have been reservation land if the U.S. government had chosen to abide by treaties it signed. However, McGirt was found guilty under Oklahoma law and appealed the decision on the basis that only federal authorities had the right to prosecute registered members of Native American tribes on reservations lands. 

Aside from tasking the members of Congress with formally abandoning treaties its predecessors signed with tribes, and suffering the political consequences of such actions, the opinion implies that a reckoning is coming. That it is time to match the government’s deeds to its words.

For the Siletz Indians, the tribe’s past is cratered with broken promises on the part of the U.S. government. In 1954, federal authorities terminated recognition of the Siletz tribe and its members were cut off from receiving benefits they would have been otherwise afforded.

When the Siletz tribe was restored in 1977, it’s reservation was reduced from 1.1 million contiguous acres to 3,600 acres in what amounted to a hodgepodge of mountaintops along the Cascades and its foothills. The Siletz also lost fishing rights to the Columbia River. 

That history is part of Pigsley’s lived experience, she was born a little more than a decade before termination and her family members have a long tradition of taking part in tribal governance. It makes her skeptical of the words of federal authorities. 

“Do I trust them? I don’t. And, if all things were equal, we would have never been terminated,” she said. “We want to decide what’s good for us and our goal is to buy back as much of the land as we can afford, but it’s expensive land when you’re talking $500,000 to just buy a house.”

She likens the hurt to that on display when Native Americans protested at President Donald Trump’s Fourth of July speech at Mt Rushmore in South Dakota. The Black Hills mountains were promised to the Sioux Nation in a treaty signed in 1868, but the government later reneged on the deal. 

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sioux’s rights to the land in 1980, but its members have not touched a financial award that is now worth more than $1 billion. 

“What we want is the land,” said Pigley. “We have tribes in Oregon that have won their lawsuits and still don’t have access to water. When the day comes that those kind of issues are settled the right way, I think that would make me believe in them, But I’ll be long gone by then.”

That may feel like a grim prognosis, but Pigsley said the court decision has given her a new inkling of hope. 

“I’m hopeful that the Supreme Court is truly independent and that they’re able to make fair decisions. I wish all courts could,” she said.