Tribal Sovereignty: A conversation with Louie Pitt Jr.

The front entrance to The Museum At Warm Springs, located in the homeland of the Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute Native American Tribes, which stretches from the top of the Cascade Mountains to the banks of the Deschutes River.

Theresa Deibele, director of Meyer's Housing Opportunities portfolio and Kimberly A.C. Wilson, director of communications at Meyer, interviewed Louie Pitt Jr., director of government affairs for The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

As the director of governmental affairs for The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Mr. Pitt is responsible for maintaining relationships with off-reservation governmental entities regarding the tribe and its interests and ensuring open communications.

Theresa Deibele:

Sovereignty is going to be a major theme of the Treaty Conference. What does it mean when we say that The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs is a sovereign nation?

Louie Pitt:

Of the three tribes, Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute, the Warm Springs and Wasco negotiated a treaty in 1855, and that negotiation has recognized the inherent sovereignty of the Warm Springs and Wasco tribes. Those two tribes have been their own entities, what lawyers call distinct political entities, not a minority but a distinct political entity, for thousands of years. The Creator put those two tribes on the river and all of the places that they've been. That's before the United States; that's before Oregon. That's what's called inherent sovereignty. We're not a creature of the U.S. Constitution either. It predates the Constitution but is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution under Commerce, and treaties are actually in the Constitution, too.

There's a lot of ignorance that exists in the United States about Indian Country, Indians, Native Americans, and what is a distinct political entity versus a minority. Who are these people and how does it work with the laws of the United States, federal, state, local, county and such. Anything that helps educate ourselves, No. 1, then, of course, our neighbors surrounding us, is really important and helps us do what the treaty, I think, was meant to do — which was to help protect and preserve our tribal way of life.

Theresa Deibele:

You mentioned the negotiations that led up to the Treaty of 1855. Could you tell us some more about those negotiations? What was given up in that process? What was gained from the tribe's perspective?

Louie Pitt:

The Warm Springs and Wasco tribes on the big river and the Paiute tribes up on the high desert plateau were living their own tribal way of life — a people with inherent sovereignty. Then the Warm Springs, Wasco and the Paiute people heard about the push westward by a new people. We definitely knew that times were changing and that there were prophets that talked about this new people coming over, that they were going to be different and that they were going to be wanting our land.

We had our own communication system about what happened on the Plains. Really aggressive military action against a really powerful people of the Plains and, also, I think we knew there were numbers [of folks] coming, too. We were wondering how this was going to happen because the Creator had given us these lands and had successfully provided for us — the lands, for thousands of years. When we saw people coming in, pre-treaty, they weren't as respectful as we had hoped they would be. There were trespassers and people setting up land here and there within our — what's called the ceded area. Treaty negotiations started upriver with (Washington Territorial Gov. Isaac) Stevens negotiating for the United States with Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and the Walla Walla tribes. We heard what happened up there, so we were preparing downriver for negotiations. There were a number of pre-meetings to the treaty conference to figure out, "How is this going to work?"

We had a few English speakers who could understand, but very few of them were prepped for the tremendous communications challenge. Three days of negotiations, Gen. (Joel) Palmer, like Stevens in earlier treaties, representing the United States, showed up in the mid-Columbia area. His whole goal was to clear title to the land. Way back when early contact on the East Coast started, lawyers declared that Indians were subhuman, they only occupied the land, they didn't own the land. We differ with that today.

The Creator gave us those lands, and we've been on those lands. Whatever ownership is, if it is that anybody owns land, it was us for thousands of years. That gives an example of the difference in language, that the challenge was to negotiate a clear title to 10 million acres of land that they said, "We occupied and had sole exclusive authority over." It went back and forth. You had a lot of bands, different bands within tribes, that had different types of leadership. It all had to be discussed, and some tribal people had what they call wild oratory or wild eloquence. It must have been pretty wonderful to hear them talk about mixing who we were for thousands of years, with the challenges we were having at that time, that day, and looking to the future. "How are we going to preserve our Indian way of life?" There was a lot of back and forth and trying to figure that out. "How do you give up land?" "How do you own land?"

The negotiations went on, and probably some of the less desirable lands were decided for the Warm Springs and Wasco Tribes. That's the current land of those tribes now, 640,000 acres. One of the amazing things that happened was the tribes must have been in a pretty strong position. We reserved rights, we didn't have them given to us by the United States, but we reserved them. We brought these rights to the table, and that is the nature of inherent sovereignty. The United States didn't give us those rights. We had those rights previous to the United States and the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

We held on to those, we reserved the rights to fish, hunt, gather roots and berries, and all the other off-reservation rights we had at the time of the treaty. That's the major thing that is different than a lot of other treaties. There are just a couple of tribes that have clear treaty language for off-reservation rights. Warm Springs is one of the four Columbia River treaty tribes. There are just a couple of other tribes with off-reservation rights. That was something that was kept. We didn't give that up; we kept it. We did give up authority to manage the lands the way that we think they should be managed. Fifty percent of that 10 million acres right now is managed and owned by the United States in our ceded area. We ceded to the United States 10 million acres. What about that other 50 percent? What about that other 5 million acres? How do we go about that?

I asked that question to myself. How do we protect our way of life? Is our way of life important as Indian people to the roots? To gather berries, to gather medicine, to gather materials, and fish and hunt? Well, yes it is. We need to figure out a way to work with the private or claimed lands. It's in the Treaty of 1855. If you read the treaty, we have these rights clearly on unclaimed land.

That's the federal lands, but what about the arguably claimed lands? The county, the state, the private property? What do we do about those? One of the things we do is go to Salem, talk to the Legislature about how to better protect certain things that are related to our treaty, like the fish. Fish need water, they need it in quantity, they need cold water and they need it at the right time of year. We work and use our treaty to get us to the table, number 1; that's what the treaty does, it brings us to the table. We are then able to negotiate.

We gave up a lot of management authority, and we have to sit at the table for the planning process of federal agencies. It's pretty long, complex and onerous. But if you hang in there, you do get more protection for your way of life. We can count so many partnerings with council, to use that to help protect elements of our treaty rights, everything from huckleberries, to roots, to deer, elk, habitat and fish, too.

We're able to partner all that. Before we had sole authority to take care of everything; now we have to partner with our folks that manage the resources off the reservation. We have to figure out what their process is, and we can go about suing them for treaty rights and such if it would help bring us to the table. Anytime you go to a court you take your chances, and in Oregon and Washington, the federal courts saw that the answer wasn't in beating your heads against each other and fighting all the time. We needed to figure out a better way of doing business so the federal court ordered the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho to work with the treaty tribes to figure out a better way of doing business.

Before we were the exclusive authority. To control the quality of the environment, too, is something we gave up. We're very dependent upon tribal internal discipline and local respect of taking care of the earth, the waters and the air. Today, there are people everywhere, every inch of our ceded land is being utilized, or so-called not being wasted. They viewed our way of life as one that wastes resources. John Locke, way back when, said, "These people aren't civilized. They let the land be wasted." But that "wasted" approach, we utilized that for thousands of years. You can't say it didn't work. It worked very well for us.

The gains and the losses create a lot of social and legal friction with the state. Here we have the state of Oregon that fought against us and Washington, too, fought against Puget Sound-area fishing rights. If you believe you have these rights, you're going to have to fight for them. We did, and we won. It took a while, and still today we have folks who have no idea about who we are and what rights we have. They think we got everything from the federal government. No, it's the other way around. We gave the federal government 10 million acres. We gave the authority to own the land. We gave the air and the water.

Theresa Deibele:

Yeah, you certainly did, and it's probably a misnomer to say what you gained here because as you pointed out it's really what you reserved of the rights you already had. Well said.

Louie Pitt:

If you look at, I think it's (chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Oregon Robert C.) Belloni's case, the court case that I have taped up to my wall here. "I did not grant the Indians anything. They possessed the right to fish for thousands of years. The Treaty of 1855 simply reserves to the Indians the rights which they already possessed. They traded title to most of the lands in the Northwest in return for their fishing rights. The tribes negotiated long and hard not to be dispossessed of those rights." That's from the 1969 court case, Judge Robert Belloni, not very recent, but very important.

Theresa Deibele:

You spoke about how treaty rights get you to the table. More generally, could you talk about how treaty rights and obligations compare with other rights that might be granted from city, state or federal governments? How did treaty rights differ?

Louie Pitt:

It's a really complicated thing. I was reading court cases, and it didn't get any clearer; if anything, it got more cloudy. Of all people, Supreme Court Justice (Clarence) Thomas was the one who brought some things out. The ending phrase was, "The Federal Indian Policy is, to say the least, schizophrenic." I kind of got a kick out of that. No wonder I've been having trouble with that all these years.

In discussions with some of my Canadian tribal friends, they said (they were) impressed with what we were doing off reservation, and what we were doing with the gorge, working with six counties, 13 urban areas and the U.S. Forest Service. Because they have to pretty much sue or go to the Legislature to get a special bill to do anything that protects their way. In the United States, we can use the treaty to get us to the table, and it does require us having an all-point pressure, or a full court press as they call it in basketball.

We let the senators and representatives know that we are going to be focusing in on a certain area of who we are and we ask them help us do that. Then we start focusing in on the land and water managers, leading with our treaty. We have to use contemporary organizational laws of our tribe. Tribes now are corporate entities, too. A confederacy of three tribes, Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute, and we get Tribal Council to sign a letter to a federal person, a manager, that we believe we have rights per our treaty.

For Warm Springs and Wasco, there's also a treaty of 1865 — the Huntington Treaty — which told tribes,"You gave up your right to leave the reservation, you gave up your right to hunt and fish." What the heck is that all about? The tribes had vehemently stood up and said, "Heck no," to that, and I'll be darned if that 1865 Treaty isn't still on the books.

During the Treaty Conference, we're going to have a portion dedicated to educating people about the 1865 Treaty. That it is our duty as American citizens and it is our duty as tribal members of Warm Springs to correct a major wrong in this nation: that's the Treaty of 1865. It needs to be nullified because the treaty that is in effect is the Treaty of 1855, The Middle Oregon Treaty of 1855.

There are three sovereigns in America: There's the feds, there's the state and there's the tribes. It's always pushing back and forth between those three entities. The feds push the states, the states push back, and the tribes, well, the tribes kind of came late because we didn't have a war chest to fight for our way of life until after we were able to build up our economy on reservations during the '50s, '60s and '70s. We pretty much had to take what we were given, and then through 1968-69, we sued the United States and the state of Oregon to clarify the rights in the treaty, not gain rights.

The treaty is a major part of helping us protect our way of life, and it's the law.

Theresa Deibele:

With a name like the Treaty of 1855, the general public may perceive the treaty to be an outdated document. But the way you're describing it is that it continues to be a living document. It continues to guide the lives of the people today. Could you describe more how that feels like a living document for the tribe?

Louie Pitt:

Every Sunday when we thank the Creator for being Indian, and the water, fish, deer, roots, berries and water again, it's very much a living part of us to be Indian. We know that when we turn around to see who our friends are, one of our biggest friends is a written piece of paper. That's the treaty. It puts in writing, it challenges the good name of the United States of America and the middle Oregon tribes of Wasco and Warm Springs. If it's an out-of-date, old document, there's another one we could maybe throw out, too: It's called the U.S. Constitution, that's an old document. Let's throw that out and see how it works. That is also a living document.

The experiment known as the United States, all the people who were trying to get to their own land, to have religious freedom, and not have to fight for their way of life every single day against the king, or czar, or the queen, or whoever is the chief of the people. It's really powerful. The United States is still a wonderful experiment. I call it an experiment because it's not over with yet. It's a young country. Again, we're proud of being here for thousands of years, as Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute. The United States isn't even in its teenage years, as far as I'm concerned.

When I went to Salem one time on a Tribal Council meeting with Barbara Roberts, Gov. Roberts at that time, Tribal Council said, "Okay Louie, do your thing." I was the new government affairs guy. Like my dad told me, "I don't know where these state people get off because they're the junior government. Our government's been here thousands of years, and theirs has just been here since Valentine's Day 1859." We have a lot of pride in where we are. We declared ourselves to be one of the senior governments in Oregon.

An important subject for Indian people is this dynamic of the old; how do we keep values that got us here and moving into the future? Richard Trudell, who is one of our great attorneys and a great teacher, says, "Proud yesterdays are a valued possession, but progressive todays and tomorrows are the focus of modern tribal leaders." For us, how do we do this? How do we as Indian people do this? It was these tribal values that we were close to the land, and the waters, and their rhythms, and all of the gifts that we had. We also have what's called a Declaration of Sovereignty you need to look at. Our way of life is an important part of that.

We understood that we were here as a major gift from the Creator, and we appreciate that. We've been in the same place for thousands of years. Compare that to the average American. Think of yourself, are you from where you are now? Where did you go to school? Where were you born? Where do you spend your winters? Americans don't have a place. We can go back thousands of years, and it's still just right over there, right up the river.

So, yes, the old document, the U.S. Constitution, there were a lot of treaties made as old documents. All along the East Coast, there were treaties between tribes until a lot of disease took over, some brutality by non-Indians, wars happened between the colonial people and the territorial people, then finally the state people versus the tribes, and such. Treaties were a written document to, so called, peaceably acquire lands.

I think in Oregon, too. Territorial Oregonians tried to move the tribes from the Willamette Valley over to the Warm Springs reservation. No, no, that won't work. How did we stay strong here? Well, we didn't trust anybody. We grouped up and let them know that we were a serious force to be dealt with one way or the other, and pretty much all of those tribes in the Willamette Valley were pretty much torn apart every which way you can. It's pretty sad, they got terminated, and we didn't. I think it was mainly because of our working together, and our tribalism, and being out of the way.

In the Middle Oregon Treaty of 1855 a negotiated legal right was the product. We need to educate people on the legal place that we stand and their understanding of who we are. It's not only the good hearts of fellow American citizens but treaty law that we are here today.

Theresa Deibele:

We understand that six pages of the original Treaty of 1855 are on loan from the National Archives and will be on display at the Museum at Warm Springs in October. What significance does this hold for the people to have those original documents there?

Louie Pitt:

To make the Middle Oregon Treaty of 1855 more real. We've heard nothing but stories, there's no pictures. I'm looking for a map with an X signed on it, and a Joe Palmer signature on the map and thumbprints from some of the tribal Indians, Wasco and Warm Springs signers. The treaty is for real. Tribal members can pick up a copy of the treaty, and see that, yes, it is a real thing that really happened. Thank goodness it did, and it just makes it more real for us.

It is a tool to help us and help protect our way of life.

Here's a right that was written down on paper, and we're living it. It's really neat that I'm living the dreams of those treaty signers. I hope to be able to pass on the same dream to my sons and daughters. To me, they got a chance to grow up tribal and share the home education they received about the treaty. It's just part of our family. Then the Indian way of life, which is just living it, taking it easy, trying to be forgiving of our ignoramus neighbors and the American dream. We have our dream, too, that's a part of that.

Kimberly Wilson:

I wanted to follow up on your last answer about the display of the documents there through October. Are your children going to be coming at some point?

Louie Pitt:

I sure hope so. I took a chance, the museum had a life achievement award and I had two of my children introduce me. They were amazed at how many diverse people I am in contact with. I used to drag them around to meetings when they were little guys. They were known as the best behaved kids in the meeting room. It wasn't until maybe about 10 years ago that they both started integrating the lessons they learned. I didn't tell them what to learn, I just did it the Indian way, whether you like it or not, you're going to see, you're going to learn by seeing and hearing, and occasionally feeling, too.

It was a nice occurrence that, they're good people and they know a lot about Indian Country, and they're very respectful of the lands and waters. They'll do very well wherever they are. They'll be in the minority, working on the tribal viewpoint of things, but that's okay. That's what we need because America is still pushing really hard everywhere it can, and it's like any city that's jam-packed, how are we going to do this? Before it gets too much worse, we need to figure out that there are some places that really do need to be protected for their function to our whole way of life. We set aside wildernesses because of their beauty, but they also have a function to the circle of life. They also got to listen to a lot of my friends here, ecologists and wildlife biologists and co-workers, too. Anyway, they were pretty well advanced into their own tribal environmentalism and ecologism. Everything has a function, everything has its place. I'm very proud of them.

I've got two other kids. My oldest is in Baker City and my youngest is working at Skamania Lodge and he's not quite sure what he wants to do. He reminds me of somebody … I think about the same age. It's a different world when you're responsible for somebody; "My gosh, what do I teach these guys? What do I know?"

In Warm Springs there's a saying, Tiichám, that means the earth or land. But you have to be a part of the Indian way of life for about 30 years before you figure out what it's all about. Tiichám, is not just about the earth. It's a whole process of accepting Tiichám as a gift, then turning around and gifting it to your children. "This is yours. This is the gift of Tiichám. I give to you." It's a gift. It's taken me 30 years to figure that out. It was just a word at one time. Now I know that it is also a big responsibility.