The decadeslong battle to restore ownership of Mount Adams’ summit and east slope to the Yakama Nation includes an often little-remembered chapter that included actor Marlon Brando and legendary newsman Walter Cronkite.

Speaking at a ceremony Thursday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the mountain’s return to Yakama ownership, Jim Thomas recalled how he enlisted the two men to help bring national attention to the tribe’s long effort to recover its lands.

Thomas, a Tlingit tribal member, was working for the National Congress of American Indians when he was asked to be part of the push that eventually led President Richard Nixon to issue an executive order returning the summit, east slope and 21,000 acres around the 12,281-foot volcano to the Yakamas.

Under the terms of the Treaty of 1855, the mountain known as Pahto was supposed to be included in the Yakamas’ 1.3-million-acre reservation. It was where Native people picked huckleberries and other plants and snowmelt brought life to the surrounding valleys. But in 1897, President Grover Cleveland created the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve, taking 121,000 acres of land belonging to the Yakamas, including the mountain. That land became part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in the early 1900s, with about 98,000 acres eventually ending up in private hands.

The fight for Mount Adams and its surrounding areas was long and arduous, with the initial federal court case dragging out with only an offer of payment to the tribe.

But the mountain is sacred and wasn’t for sale, said Thomas, recalling how he contacted actor Marlon Brando, who wholeheartedly joined the effort.

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Brando then contacted CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite to persuade him to speak to Thomas to shine light on the Yakamas’ concerns over the mountain.

Thomas drew applause and laughter when he dropped his voice, imitating Brando speaking in the movie “The Godfather.”

That’s how Brando sounded when he spoke to Cronkite, Thomas said.

“I want you to treat him with the same respect you’d treat me,” Thomas recalled Brando telling Cronkite.

Thomas told how Brando got them on the “Today” show in an effort to swell up support for the Yakamas.

“The only way they’d put us on is if Marlon showed up,” Thomas said. “And he did.”

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The efforts eventually paid off. Then-U. S. Attorney General John Mitchell gave Nixon a way to resolve the situation. The land was not taken as described in the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, Mitchell reasoned, so it could be returned to the Yakama through an executive order rather than an act of Congress. On May 20, 1972, just a month before the start of the Watergate scandal that would topple his administration, Nixon signed the order.

Thursday’s commemoration lured tribal leaders from tribes throughout the region, including Makah and those from the Tulalip Reservation. The ceremony also kicked off the Yakamas’ annual National Indian Days Powwow.

Thomas recalled the many Yakama leaders who led the effort, including former tribal council members Robert Jim, Eagle Seelatsee and Genevieve Hooper.

“After we won, the tribe brought me back here,” he said. “We spent a month preparing ceremonies.”

Reach Phil Ferolito at pferolito@yakimaherald.com.