Emily Washines frequently hears about rejuvenating trips to Mount Adams, whether to hunt, gather, or just be outside.
“I hear people every day talk about going up to the mountain and now feeling better coming back,” Washines, a Yakama Nation citizen and the tribal historian and advocate for cultural revitalization, said.
But it’s only been for the last 50 years that tribal citizens have been able to head to the mountain, known to the Yakama as Pahto, and say they were on tribal lands.
Despite promises made when the Yakama Nation signed a treaty in 1855 that the mountain would be included in the tribe’s territory, the U.S. government had considered the mountain to be outside of the reservation’s boundaries.
That changed 50 years ago, when President Richard M. Nixon on May 20, 1972, signed an executive order that recognized that the sacred mountain had mistakenly been excluded from the reservation. The order returned about 21,000 acres and the eastern part of the mountain to the tribe after years of pressing for the error to be corrected.
“This action rights a wrong going back 65 years,” Nixon said when signing the executive order. “The U.S. government lost the treaty map in its own files and by the time it was found actions had been taken which had mistakenly displaced the Indians from this land.”
Located in the southwest Washington Cascades, Mount Adams climbs to more than 12,200 feet, making it the state’s second tallest peak. It is revered by the Yakama — a confederacy of 14 tribes and bands — as one of its most important landmarks.
But even after that order 50 years ago, the century-long struggle over Pahto continued, finally culminating last month in the U.S. Supreme Court affirming that the Yakama Nation’s half of Mount Adams belonged to the tribe.
The recent court development, Yakama tribal leaders say, adds to the significance of the anniversary of Nixon’s executive order.
“The Yakama Nation will never compromise when our treaty is at stake,” Yakama Tribal Council Chairman Delano Saluskin said in a news release after the decision.
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Tribal officials could not be reached for comment before the anniversary. A tribal council member, however, told Underscore.news and Indian Country Today that there had been discussion of potentially commemorating the anniversary and recent court win, but nothing had been finalized beyond an annual powwow and celebration of the land reclamation held every September.
The land reclamation is one of the earliest examples of tribes reclaiming land stolen from them, said Andrew Fisher, a history professor at the College of William and Mary who has written about the Yakama’s boundary dispute and other matters involving Pacific Northwest tribes.
The return of Pahto and the earlier return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo in 1970 probably can’t be credited with starting the current Land Back movement, however, because “of the long lapse since those events and the federal government's spotty record in the interim,” Fisher wrote in an email to Underscore.news and Indian Country Today.
But the two cases “show what is possible when Native peoples refuse to take no for an answer and policymakers take Indigenous claims and cultures seriously,” he wrote.
The Yakama people once claimed 11 million acres by Aboriginal title and roamed beyond that across the Northwest in search of bison or fish. Those millions of acres of homelands included Pahto, where tribal members could gather plentiful roots, berries and nuts, hunt the bountiful game, or drink fresh water from the numerous streams.
The mountain, according to tribal legends, is one of five sisters who comprise the Yakama Nation’s five sacred mountains.
Through land cessions in treaties, the Yakama’s land was reduced to nearly 1.4 million acres today. But when the tribe negotiated the treaty in 1855 with the federal government, leaders were clear that Mount Adams would still be a part of Yakama lands.
But surveying errors, a federal employee misplacing the reservation map soon after the treaty was signed, and later actions making that land public cut Pahto off from the Yakama Reservation.
In 1966, the Indian Claims Commission found that the land was rightfully part of the Yakama Reservation. But that commission had authority only to reimburse the tribe for lost lands, not return them.
Washines said that wasn’t good enough.
“Being told ‘no’ for decades … and then still being told ‘no,’ it’s goal-posting,” she said.
In 1972, Nixon returned the mountain and nearby 21,000 acres to the tribe through Executive Order 11670, admitting that the government had improperly taken the land.
Nixon’s order came after the tribe, with the help of Marlon Brando, embarked on a public relations campaign that included appearances on the Today Show in 1972 and attention from the journalist Walter Cronkite.
Then-Tribal Chairman Robert Jim, who died in 1973, said after the signing that working to restore ownership of Mount Adams and the 21,000 acres was one of his proudest accomplishments. He said the tribe would have accepted nothing less — certainly not just payment for the land — than a return of the mountain and surrounding land.
“On May 20, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon gave proof to my people that there is justice in America, and he restored a faith in a government that has long been mistrusted,” Jim said in a statement at the time.
Court decisions and subsequent federal land surveys have solidified Nixon’s decision and the 1966 commission’s ruling.
Still, some have continued to insist that the eastern part of Mount Adams, along with a large portion of the reservation, was not actually meant to be counted as tribal land.
In 2017, Klickitat County arrested and prosecuted a juvenile Yakama tribal citizen on a statutory rape case. But the tribe sued, saying the county had arrested the youth on tribal land — known as Tract D — where it had no jurisdiction.
Courts repeatedly sided with the tribe, but Klickitat County asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and rule that the more than 121,400 acres of Tract D, which included the 21,000 acres and eastern half of Pahto the tribe reclaimed after Nixon’s order, were never intended to be made reservation land.
The county contends the dispute came from the 1855 treaty’s ambiguous language, and that Congressional actions and federal surveys in the early 1900s of the land put Tract D outside of the reservation’s boundaries.
The U.S. Supreme Court on April 18 denied the county's petition and declined to hear the case, affirming previous rulings that the Yakama leaders in 1855 understood the treaty’s land boundaries to include Pahto, hopefully settling the issue for good, Saluskin said.
“We have repeatedly defended and will continue to defend our treaty rights,” he said in the news release, adding that he hopes the court's decision “starts a new relationship between our governments founded on respect for the Yakama Nation’s Treaty rights and history.”
‘Reason to celebrate’
Washines wasn’t yet born when Nixon signed the executive order.
But she remembers being taught about the importance of the mountain — the food and water it provides — and the fight that led to the tribe reclaiming it when she was growing up.
She remembers being told about the importance of the Yakama’s treaties and that future generations would still have to fight to ensure the treaties were honored.
And with children of her own, she said she’s glad she’s able to teach them about Pahto, about how the land of the mountain has been and can be used.
Washines said the generational fight to reclaim Pahto is an example of “how federal government Indian policy hurts us."
But the return of Pahto, she said, is “reason to celebrate.”
Lead photo: A cloud hovers over Mount Adams in Yakima, Washington, in this file photo from 2016. Mount Adams, known as Pahto, is the second tallest mountain in Washington. It was returned to the Yakama Nation through an executive order by President Richard M. Nixon on May 20, 2022. Photo by Sofia Jaramillo/Yakima Herald-Republic
This story is co-published by Underscore.news and Indian Country Today, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.