Puyallup Land Claims Settlement (1990)

  • By Miguel Douglas
  • Posted 10/12/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20157

With the Puyallup Land Claims Settlement of 1990, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians was able to resolve many of the conflicts over land ownership between the Tribe and local commercial, private, and governmental interests that had existed for decades as the Tribe fought to retain and protect its reservation and ancestral lands located along the southern shores of Puget Sound and the Puyallup River in Pierce County. More than a century earlier, in 1854, as a result of the conflicts arising from the influx of settlers to what would later become the state of Washington, the Treaty of Medicine Creek was signed under duress. It allocated reservation land to the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and other tribes of the region in exchange for ceding much of their traditional lands to the federal government. However, within decades after the signing of the treaty, virtually all of the Puyallup Tribal members' allotted reservation lands were taken out of their possession, often in questionable transactions. The Puyallup Land Claims Settlement of 1990 was the mechanism to address this contentious issue of land ownership.

The Medicine Creek Treaty and Its Aftermath

The ancestral lands of the Puyallup people were located on the eastern side of Puget Sound. Sixty-two leaders of Western Washington tribes gathered, alongside Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), on December 26, 1854, at Medicine Creek (in what is now Thurston County) to sign the Treaty of Medicine Creek. With the signing of the treaty, the various local tribes, which included the Puyallup Tribe, ceded to the federal government approximately 2.24 million acres of land.

For ceding their claims of land in Washington Territory, the Puyallup Indians were to receive a guarantee of fishing and hunting rights, designated land for the establishment of the Puyallup Reservation, and $32,500 over the course of 10 years. The prominent Native American leader Chief Leschi (1808-1858) was designated to represent the Nisqually and Puyallup Tribes by appointment of Governor Stevens.

Presidential executive orders in 1857 and 1873 further defined what land was within the Puyallup Tribe's reservation, with land alongside the Puyallup River and portions of land in what today are the cities of Puyallup, Fife, Milton, and Tacoma being granted to the Tribe. Much of this newly granted land was to be lost later due to the General Allotment Act signed in 1887, with the State of Washington also acquiring much of the Tribal land that fell within its borders once it had gained statehood in 1889. Furthermore, the Port of Tacoma and other entities eventually acquired much of the Tribal land held in Commencement Bay and other riverbed properties as well.

It was not until the late 1800s that Puyallup Tribe of Indians began to seriously assert their claims on the land. As much of the land was already taken from them, movements began to crop up that asserted rights as a Tribe to the originally designated land under the Medicine Creek Treaty. Members of the Tribe also publicly expressed the many injustices committed against them as far as how a great deal of their land had been completely stolen or unfairly bargained away.

Asserting Rights as an Indigenous People

The "Fishing Wars" that took place in the 1960s and 1970s brought to a head just how serious this dilemma of land and water rights was for the people of the Puyallup Tribe. Many members and supporters of the Tribe, including celebrities such as Buffy Sainte-Marie (b. 1941), Dick Gregory (1932-2017), and Marlon Brando (1924-2004), took up the cause of Indian treaty fishing rights, which were being disregarded by state authorities. In March 1964, Brando was arrested and detained for simply fishing on the Puyallup River with Puyallup Tribal member Robert "Bob" Satiacum (1929-1991). Activists such as Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014) of the Nisqually Tribe, Puyallup Tribal member Ramona Bennet (b. 1938), and others were pioneering advocates for fishing rights. Many members and activists had their boats and canoes confiscated by state enforcement agents and local police, with numerous violent and non-violent clashes occurring.

Then in his 1974 ruling in United States v. Washington, more commonly known as the Boldt decision, Federal District Judge George Boldt (1903-1984) upheld and reaffirmed the fishing rights of American Indians in the state of Washington, such as the Puyallup Tribe. Under Boldt's ruling, the tribes were also to be co-managers along with the state of the continued harvesting of salmon and other fish. The decision defined the reserved right held by Western Washington tribes as half of the harvest of fish each and every year going forward.

The Boldt decision was viewed as a significant catalyst for the Puyallup Tribe, with the Tribe now pursuing a strong claim to more than 20,000 acres of land in the Tacoma area, all of which was part of the original reservation land designated in the Medicine Creek Treaty. In 1975, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling by Judge Boldt, thus further recognizing the original reservation boundaries of the Puyallup Tribe. This was a huge step forward in pursuing an earnest struggle for the land that was originally supposed to be the Tribe's.

Another key case followed in 1978. In Andrus v. City of Tacoma, the Secretary of the Interior, acting through an area director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, started to place parcels of land with the boundaries of the Puyallup Reservation into trust. Placing lands in trust is a policy the federal government has used to restore some of the vast amount of reservation land across the country that Indians lost ownership of following the 1887 Allotment Act. The U.S. government holds legal title to the land in trust for the benefit of a tribe or individual Indians. The Secretary's actions of beginning to accept tracts of land in Tacoma for the beneficial use of the Puyallup Tribe was met with local hostility, particularly since whenever the Puyallup Tribe or any of its members became the beneficiary of an allotment of land, the Tribe disputed the civil, tax, and criminal jurisdiction of the city government.

The City of Tacoma subsequently sued the Department of Interior, with some statements from the plaintiff side suggesting that the Puyallup Reservation did not even exist anymore due to the lack of land under Tribal ownership. District Judge Gerhard Gesell (1910-1993), who presided over the case, ruled that the Puyallup Tribe was a historic tribe and was thus defined by the reservation boundaries. This ruling gave the Tribe tremendous powers that included placing land into trust, which was a key element in addressing the issue of land ownership within the Puyallup Tribe's reservation boundaries. Then in the 1983 court case Puyallup Indian Tribe v. Port of Tacoma, the Ninth Circuit recognized the right of the Puyallup Tribe to 12 acres of riverbed land along the Puyallup River.

Just a year later, in 1984, the Puyallup Tribe filed a formal complaint against the Port of Tacoma and the Union Pacific Railroad to reacquire an additional 120 acres of tideland located along Commencement Bay and the Puyallup River. This formal complaint brought into question the validity of the title to much of the industrial and harbor land along the Tacoma waterfront, where much of the city's industry was located. Even some state highways crossed the boundaries of the land claimed by the Tribe. Given the considerable extent of the claimed land and the various harbor facilities, buildings, and homes that had been developed on it, the value of the claimed land was eventually estimated at roughly $750 million in a U.S. House of Representatives report on the proposed Puyallup Land Claims Settlement.

Controversial negotiations over the land claims began between the Puyallup Tribe and various cities and other municipalities and entities began following the Puyallup Indian Tribe v. Port of Tacoma decision. But the contentious issue of land had been on the minds of Tribal members for decades, if not more than a century. As the Puyallup Tribe continued to contend for its land, the negotiations would prove to be an arduous task that would influence the course and nature of the Tribe for years to come.

Before the Land Claims Settlement

In the decades prior to the active struggle for the Puyallup Land Claims Settlement, the social and economic welfare of the Puyallup Tribal community was relatively poor in many respects. Since much of the land had been removed from Tribal ownership, there was little space for any considerable kind of economic development to take place. Many Tribal members lacked jobs, largely because many non-native places of employment did not hire Native Americans. Many Tribal members were on welfare, and many patronized food banks to survive. Alcoholism and drug use was also fairly high, as many Tribal members did not see a bright future for themselves or the Tribe as a whole.

To add insult to injury, the State of Washington and various city governments were actively opposing the the Tribe's efforts to put into trust land where economic development could take place. The relationship between the various governments, the non-natives, and the Puyallup Tribe was very problematic. And this was intermixed with blatant expressions of racism as well, with many Tribal members experiencing discrimination on a daily basis, not only from local citizens, but also from some political figures.

Many Tribal members also saw repeated attempts by local authorities, citizens, and governmental entities to keep the Puyallup Tribe down on a larger scale. Even though the Tribal reservation included outlets for international trade and considerable freeway access, they felt the Tribe was obstructed from participating in much of the economic expansion that was occurring throughout Tacoma and its neighboring cities and municipalities. They saw concentrated efforts to keep the Puyallup Tribe members from having the opportunity to share in the bulging economic creation that was happening all around them.

Controversy and Communication

It was not until the fishing rights battle and the subsequent court case against the Port of Tacoma that the notion of being able to negotiate with the non-native side regarding land claims was seen as possible for the Puyallup Tribe. Prominent political figures such as U.S. Representative Norm Dicks (b. 1940) from Washington's Sixth District and U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye (1924-2012) of Hawaii helped and supported the Tribe as it began to enter into negotiations. Senator Inouye, who had been the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, helped push the land claims through on the Senate side, with Representative Dicks pushing it through on the House side.

The controversy surrounding the land claims was felt on both sides. Some Puyallup Tribe members felt that the Tribe was selling out by entering into negotiations, while some non-natives made threats to Puyallup Tribal Council members. There were Tribal members who thought that negotiations should not even be taking place and that the Tribe should just go out and remove people from properties along the Puyallup riverbed that the Tribe had won back in the Port of Tacoma case. They felt that since it was their land, they should be able to decide what was to be done with it.

The aspect of outsiders, or non-natives, essentially coming in and trying to dictate how much land the Puyallup Tribe could receive and what they could do with it truly struck a nerve with many Tribal members. With much of their land as a Tribe having already been stolen by outsiders, some members did not trust non-natives or external entities to help in any way concerning the land claims issue, even if they were genuinely trying to help out.

Despite many of these concerns, the negotiations did open to the door to discussing some much-need compromises that the Puyallup Tribe, as well as various entities that were on their land at the time, had to address. Communication between the Tribe and numerous local governments started to take place to discuss issues such as land use, jurisdiction, and boundary rights. The non-native side of the negotiations established a blue-ribbon committee to survey and study the surrounding issues of water, air, land, fish, international trade, economic development, and how the Puyallup Tribe fit within the a non-native worldview of these issues.

Quite surprisingly, an educational process began to arise out of the negotiations between the Puyallup Tribe and non-natives. The negotiations essentially created a method that forced the non-native entities, as well as the Tribe, to come to the table and discuss a variety of issues such as jurisdiction, taxation, and putting land into trust. The negotiation process also established a system of notification, which was intended to notify the surrounding cities, local governments, and the Puyallup Tribe regarding potential development and other issues arising on the land at issue, in the hope of finding workable agreements regarding the land claims.

The entire process relied heavily on educating those involved. Bringing to the forefront of local government attention many of the issues that were long of concern to the Puyallup Tribe made for considerable headway in communication between them. Many longstanding issues were resolved, or at least the process in which they could to start to be resolved was initiated. Without the negotiation process, many of these issues might have remained unresolved even to this day. The process created healing throughout the larger community, where communication was viewed as an essential element in bringing people together to discuss important issues.

The Settlement and Its Effects

As the negotiations came to a head in the latter half of the 1980s, a settlement package of approximately $162 million in land, fisheries, economic and social development, and the construction of the Blair Navigation Project, finally came to fruition. In 1990, the Puyallup Tribe accepted and signed the settlement package, which would go on to be called the Puyallup Land Claims Settlement. It was at the time the second-largest land claims settlement in U.S. history, behind only the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act 1971.

The state, local governments, and private entities provided roughly half the amount in the settlement package, with the federal government providing the remainder. The Tribe also received roughly 900 acres of land, with property provided for industrial, fishery, and marine-terminal development. The federal government also created a $22 million permanent trust fund, which made possible the provision of health, social, and welfare services to all Tribal members.

The Puyallup Tribe, the State of Washington, and local governments were to work together to protect fishing habitat, with a navigation agreement to minimize any potential future conflicts that could arise between commercial shipping companies and Tribal fishing. A $10 million fund was also provided to help facilitate this cooperative effort. In return, the Puyallup Tribe was to relinquish 20,000 acres of land and clear title to all land within Washington that was originally held by the Tribe. This included giving each respective government the right to enforce its own environmental laws within its jurisdiction. Finally, the Puyallup Tribe was to not contest with the development of several local projects that would minimally affect fisheries in the surrounding area.

The Puyallup Land Claims Settlement delivered economic development, employment, health services, school services, and perhaps most importantly, pride, back to many of the Puyallup people. While the process was undoubtedly controversial, with many opinions from within and outside the Puyallup Tribe, it ultimately provided an opportunity for the Tribe and its members to take steps to become self-sufficient and in charge of their own destiny as an Indigenous people.


Richard Kluger, The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); Reg Ashwell, Coast Salish: Their Art, Culture and Legends (Saanichton, B.C.: Hancock House, 1978); Charles Wilkinson, Messages from Frank's Landing (Seattle: University of Washington, 2000); Paul Fridlund, Washington's Story: The Conquest (Puyallup: P. Fridlund, 2003); Robert Ruby and John Brown, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1986); United States v. Washington, 520 F.2d 676 (1974); Andrus v. City of Tacoma, 457 F.Supp. 342 (1978); Puyallup Indian Tribe v. Port of Tacoma, 717 F. 2d 1251 (1983); Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Pub. L 92-203, 85 Stat. 688 (1971).

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