Home » Case Summaries » 1998 » Muckleshoot Tribe v. Lummi Indian Tribe


Muckleshoot Tribe v. Lummi Indian Tribe



The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe (Muckleshoot) and other south Puget Sound Indian Tribes disputed an interpretation of decrees adjudicating their treaty fishing rights with respect to the “usual and accustomed fishing places” of the Lummi and Swinomish tribes. Muckleshoot and other south Puget Sound Tribes filed a request for determination (RFD) seeking an injunction restraining the fisheries of north Puget Sound Tribes, including the Swinomish and Lummi Tribes (Swinomish and Lummi). The northern fisheries intercepted salmon on their return migration from the ocean, through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. The north Puget Sound Tribes moved to dismiss, and Muckleshoot filed a motion for summary judgment against Swinomish and Lummi.

Muckleshoot sought rulings that each Tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing grounds and places, as defined by United States v. Washington (Phase I)[1] and United States v. Washington (Phase II),[2] did not include the Puget Sound Commercial Salmon Management and Catch Reporting Area 10, an area including the waters of Puget Sound bordering the City of Seattle. The district court granted Muckleshoot’s motion against Swinomish and continued the motion against Lummi to allow that Tribe to depose anthropologist Dr. Barbara Lane, an expert witness whose report on historical tribal fishing grounds was the principal evidence relied upon in Phase I. The district court later granted Muckleshoot’s motion for partial summary judgment against Lummi and dismissed the RFD without prejudice but subject to limitations on refiling.

On appeal, Swinomish claimed that the district court had erred in hearing Muckleshoot’s partial summary judgment motion. Swinomish claimed that Muckleshoot had violated the decree by making Area 10 fishing ground claims in the RFD rather than initiating a separate subproceeding. Phase I provides that “a party seeking relief shall file . . . a ‘request for determination,’ . . . setting forth the factual and legal basis of the claim for relief . . . and a statement of the relief sought by the requesting party.”[3] Swinomish argued that because the RFD only raised issues of fair allocation of treaty-share salmon, Swinomish had not received adequate notice of Muckleshoot’s intent to litigate fishing ground claims. Swinomish claimed that Muckleshoot should have convened a conference before filing a separate subproceeding. The district court decided that there were no practical reasons for requiring compliance with this part of the decree, because both Lummi and Swinomish had had notice of the fishing ground issue for several years. Therefore, failure to file a separate subproceeding did not prejudice them. Also, Muckleshoot’s motion only sought clarification of two of the decree’s findings, not a determination of a new issue.

A decision regarding management of litigation is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Here, the Ninth Circuit held that there had been no abuse of discretion in entertaining Muckleshoot’s motion without a new subproceeding because the district court limited review to clarifying two prior findings of Phase I and Phase II. Neither Swinomish nor Lummi was prejudiced by the action of the district court, because both had had notice of Muckleshoot’s contention over Area 10 for many years. Clarification of fishing areas was relevant to the fairness of fish allocation, because allocation involves determining where the fish may be harvested.

The district court interpreted the finding of “usual and accustomed fishing grounds” in Phase I to exclude waters in Area 10, because the southernmost land point, Whidbey Island, lies seven miles north of the northernmost part of Area 10.[4] Swinomish argued that because the designated fishing grounds included “marine areas” surrounding Whidbey Island, these grounds were meant to include some of the northern part of Area 10. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, stating that the Swinomish had not offered any evidence suggesting that the district court’s factual findings regarding Swinomish’s fishing grounds were ambiguous or that the district court meant something other than the plain meaning of Phase I. Therefore, the court held that “marine areas of northern Puget Sound . . . south to and including Whidbey Island”[5] does not include any part of Area 10.

The usual and accustomed fishing grounds of the Lummi Tribe included the marine areas of Northern Puget Sound from the Fraser River south to the “present environs of Seattle,”[6] a definition derived from a report from Dr. Lane and relied on in Phase I. The district court concluded that Judge Boldt in Phase I had meant to adopt Dr. Lane’s intended meaning, even though this meaning was not discerned until a deposition taken in August 1995, more than twenty years after the decision was handed down. Lummi claimed that admission of this testimony was error, because the definition was not part of the original decree. In determining the meaning of an ambiguous judgment, the record before the issuing court and the findings of fact should be consulted. The Ninth Circuit concluded that “present environs of Seattle” is ambiguous, because Judge Boldt did not give the exact location of the “environs of Seattle” at the time of his decision. Because Phase I and Phase II did not clarify this phrase, it would be speculation to assume that Judge Boldt would have adopted Dr. Lane’s meaning had he been aware of it. Therefore, the district court had erred by using this later testimony to determine Judge Boldt’s intended meaning.

The Ninth Circuit also held that the district court had erred in entering a supplemental finding under the decree to determine the location of a tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing grounds not specifically determined by Phase I. The appellate court first observed that all parties had not been allowed to present evidence. Second, although the decree had reserved continuing jurisdiction, there was no express authorization for the court to resolve an ambiguity with supplemental findings that would change the description of fishing grounds in the decree. However, the court held that the district court did have jurisdiction to determine whether actions of the parties conformed with Phase I. The RFD and later proceedings under it involved whether the southern portion of the areas in which the Lummi Tribe is currently taking fish conforms to the decree. The parties had failed to offer evidence that would allow the district court to give specificity to the geographic terms of the decree. Consequently, this issue should be addressed on remand to the district court.

Judge O’Scannlain dissented, stating that the deposition of Dr. Lane had been properly considered by the district court.

[1] 384 F. Supp. 312 (W.D. Wash. 1974).

[2] 459 F. Supp. 1020 (W.D. Wash. 1978).

[3] 384 F. Supp. at 419.

[4] Id. at 398.

[5] Id. at 360.

[6] Id.

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