Call it the second round of the ``treaty wars.'' Although the battlefield has shifted from Little Big Horn to the courtroom, the fight over American Indian treaty rights remains bitter in several parts of the United States.
Since the 1970s, Indian tribes increasingly have called on federal courts to reaffirm the treaty rights negotiated by their ancestors more than 100 years ago. But as key legal decisions have come down in favor of the tribes - giving them renewed access to fish, game, water, and other resources - non-Indian opposition to the treaties has mounted.
Now, dissatisfaction has reached such heights that several organizations are calling for Congress to amend - or even abolish - the federal government's treaties with the tribes.
``So long as tribes are exercising their power [under the treaties], this kind of protest will be happening,'' says Charles Wilkinson, a law professor and expert on Indian affairs with the University of Colorado.
``Right now, I'd say antitreaty sentiment is spreading. We are in a tough cycle,'' Professor Wilkinson says.
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), increasingly concerned about the activities of antitreaty groups, has called a meeting of tribal leaders tomorrow in Washington to discuss the issue.
``Quite a few things have come up,'' says NCAI's Robert Holden.
Legislation introduced by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin would abrogate off-reservation fishing and hunting rights of the Chippewa Nations in Wisconsin, while another bill would revoke tribal governments' rights of taxation, Mr. Holden says. ``Whenever these things happen, we have strategy sessions.''
Treaty opponents, meanwhile, say their objections are not really about the treaties. Rather, ``it's how the liberal courts have interpreted them,'' says Larry Greschner, executive director of Protect Americans' Rights and Resources (PARR) a Wisconsin-based group.
``The courts have expanded on [Indian] rights - giving one group of people special privileges other Americans don't have,'' he says.
Many of the controversies center on the use of natural resources - water, fish, game, and land.
PARR, for instance, was formed after a federal judge ruled in 1983 that 19th-century treaties give Wisconsin Chippewa the right to hunt and fish on public and private land outside the reservations if the land is opened to hunting and fishing.
The decision did not sit well in northern Wisconsin, where tourism from sport fishing and hunting is a major industry.
`On the reservation, [native Americans] are subject to federal and tribal laws, and that's fine,'' Mr. Greschner says. ``But off the reservation, they should be subject to state laws and regulations,'' such as those setting limits on fishing and hunting.
Earlier this year PARR held its first national conference, attended by 700 people from 14 states and Canada, Greschner says.
In addition to abolishing ``outdated'' Indian treaties, PARR is pushing for the creation of a presidential commission to study federal Indian policy, and for the dissolution of Indian reservations, he says.
To Mr. Holden and other native Americans, the attack against treaties is the same as an attack against Indian people. Without the treaties, tribes would have no means to help protect their subsistence and commercial economies, their cultures, and their reservations from encroachment, they say.
The opening salvo in this century's ``treaty wars'' came in 1974, with the famous Boldt decision in the state of Washington.
In that decision, federal district Judge George Boldt found the tribes were entitled to take up to half of the salmon and steelhead trout runs, based on the 1855 tribal treaty right to fish at traditional fishing grounds off the reservations.
There was an immediate and vitriolic backlash to the Boldt decision - from state officials, from the powerful commercial fishing industry, from sport fishermen, and from the public. Now, as other tribes ask the courts to reaffirm and enforce their treaty rights, the backlash continues to ripple across the US, Wilkinson says.
Laura Berg of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission in Portland, Ore. says it is important to remember that the treaties did not give Indians anything.
``They gave all the rest of us most of this land,'' she says, adding the Indians reserved for themselves certain land and hunting and fishing rights.
The Pacific Northwest is finally coming to grips with the Boldt decision, entering a ``new era of cooperation'' between the states and the tribes during the last four years, says Steve Robinson of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
``People are finally seeing that, rather than fighting over a shrinking number of fish, we could work together to bring the fish back so everyone could have more,'' Mr. Robinson says.
But the adjustment process is still under way in Alaska, the Great Lakes area, and a few other pockets of the US, says Wilkinson, who doesn't believe the antitreaty movement has gathered enough momentum to be a serious threat to the tribes.
History, he says, has shown the tribes' ``will to prevail is much stronger than the forces against them.''