Commission addresses Native hunting access

by David Boyle

News Director

The San Juan County Commission is considering a resolution that would express support of the Navajo Nation’s efforts to revise the Nation’s contract with the state of Utah that would allow the Diné people to obtain free hunting permits in the state, including San Juan County.

The resolution states it is seeking to uphold provisions granted in the Navajo Treaty of 1868. The treaty included 13 articles including a cessation of war, delineation of the reservation, and distribution of land.

Article IX of the treaty states “[the tribe] retain[s] the right to hunt on any unoccupied lands contiguous to their reservation, so long as the large game may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase.”

County Administrator Mack McDonald outlined the issue in the August 4 County Commission meeting.

“The argument that you would have is, is there enough game on the range thereon to justify the chase?” said McDonald.

“So, particularly, what we’re looking at is the hunting areas such as the Blue Mountains and Bears Ears area which could be argued are contiguous to the Navajo Nation and should be part of the treaty.

“We’ve got the Utah Division of Indian Affairs working on this as well as several other tribes requesting with the same language in their treaties as well.”

The resolution calls for free hunting permits to be given to the Diné people within the state. Commissioner Bruce Adams stated he was opposed to giving away free permits.

“I’m not opposed to allowing hunting permits to be sold to anybody in the state of Utah, but I am opposed to the concept of free hunting permits. I know that any time anybody from off of the reservation goes onto the reservation to hunt, they’re limited by what they can do and they’re also charged.”

Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy said the treaty intends free hunting rights be given to the tribe. 

“The Navajo hunters are not sportsman hunters,” said Maryboy. “We are traditional hunters, meaning anything that is being taken in the field has to go through a certain protocol to address these animals and also to relay into the mountains. Right now people are running out of hunting areas.”

Commissioner Adams said he hopes hunting associations within the state and county get an opportunity to weigh in on the issue.

“There is no evidence in this resolution that says that the treaty of 1868 allows for free hunting rights,” said Adams. “It just says they retain the rights to hunt on occupied land contiguous.

“So I would hope that whoever is going to research this would research whether or not the treaty actually says that the land contiguous – the treaty offers them free hunting rights.”

County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes asked that the resolution be tabled until another meeting, stating that the issue is sensitive.

In 2001 the state of Utah and the Navajo Nation negotiated an agreement regarding hunting rights of Navajo tribal members in the state.

The agreement defines the Nation’s contiguous (aboriginal) lands in Utah north of the reservation and provides defined hunting opportunities for its members on those lands, consistent with state regulations.

Currently 270 deer tags are reserved to be sold to Utah members of the Navajo Nation each year. The tags are sold at a cost of $40 a tag. A Utah hunting license must also be purchased at a cost of $34.

In 2020 permits were available for Utah Navajos to purchase from July 20-23. The native archery hunt starts August 15 through September 11. The muzzeloader hunt is September 23 through October 1 and any legal weapon hunt is October 17-25.

Hunting and fishing rights established by treaties between the federal government and various tribes in the United States has long been an issue of dispute in the western U.S. 

In May 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in a case regarding a member of the Crow Tribe’s right to hunt in the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming.

The court ruled narrowly in favor (5-4) in Herrera v. Wyoming, upholding members of the Crow, or Apsáalooke, tribe rights to hunt on unoccupied land including national forests granted as part of a treaty between the tribe and the U.S. in 1868. 

The dissenting justices argued the ruling went against the previous court ruling in Ward v. Race Horse (1896), which says the treaty expired when Wyoming received statehood. A Federal District Court upheld that ruling in the 1995 Crow Tribe of Indians v. Repsis case.

While the Supreme Court ruling upheld the legitimacy of hunting rights established in treaties between the US Government and Native tribes, the particularities of those rights depend on the various treaties.

The County Attorney’s office was given the assignment to study the language of the treaty before the item returns to the county commission.

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