Apparently, it takes a while to clear residual bigotry from a state’s laws and precedents. This month, the Washington Supreme Court took the final step overturning a century-old racist decision.
The case involved Alec Towessnute, a member of the Yakama Nation. In 1915, he was arrested for fishing in the Yakima River miles away from any tribal lands. A lower court exonerated him because a treaty between the Yakama and the federal government guaranteed fishing rights where he was.
Prosecutors appealed, and the Supreme Court concluded that there was no native sovereignty, treaties weren’t binding, and any rights to the land and fisheries came from white settlers.
“The premise of Indian sovereignty we reject. The treaty is not to be interpreted in that light. At no time did our ancestors in getting title to this continent ever regard the aborigines as other than mere occupants, and incompetent occupants, of the soil,” the court wrote in its shockingly bigoted decision. “Only that title was esteemed which came from white men.”
If those words make a modern reader uncomfortable, they should. In 105 years, we have come far as a state, even if we still have far to go in the cause of racial justice.
Yet that odious decision remained the official opinion of the court all these years. Any lawyer could cite its precedent.
In 2014, the Legislature passed a law that gave Native American defendants and their heirs the right to have convictions overturned if they were exercising their treaty fishing rights. Many did, but Towessnute’s heirs hit a snag. Though his name was on the Supreme Court case, no one could find records of his actual conviction.
So the Supreme Court intervened last year. It issued an order repudiating that old decision and clearing Towessnute. This month, it elevated that order to an opinion of the court. Now the legal precedent in Washington is once again what it should be. “[The 1916 court] fundamentally misunderstood the nature of treaties and their guarantees, as well as the concept of tribal sovereignty,” the new opinion states.
Near-forgotten injustices such as these remain stains on a state’s history, and the Supreme Court has been working to cleanse them. Last year, it issued a blistering letter to the legal community calling for greater racial justice, and it overturned a 1960 ruling that allowed cemeteries to discriminate against Black Americans, though none did anymore. It was the principle of the thing.
These efforts do not wash away stains on history. Washington can and must remember past bigotry as it strives to bring the law closer to equality and justice.