Seminal Supreme Court Case Serves as Foundation of Tribe’s Fishing Rights, Sovereignty
The Yurok Tribe invites the community to join us in celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Mattz v. Arnett at noon on Sunday, June 11, at the Requa Boat Dock. The monumental ruling reaffirmed the Yurok Reservation as Indian Country, affirmed the Tribe’s hunting and fishing rights and strengthened tribal sovereignty throughout Indian Country.
“This case is part of a long history of Yurok men and woman fighting to protect our rights and our way of life,” said Joseph L. James, the Chairman of the Yurok Tribe. We are putting on this event to ensure that our youth and future generations know how much our elders sacrificed to preserve our sovereignty rights and traditions."
“We are organizing this event to celebrate our sovereignty, our resilience and our rights as Yurok people,” said Susan Masten, a former Yurok Tribal Council Chairperson and the niece of Raymond Mattz, the plaintiff in Mattz v Arnett.
The event will include a delicious lunch as well as commentary from Requa District Representative Ryan Ray and Aawok Raymond Mattz’s relatives Susan Masten and Amy Cordalis. Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Myers and Yurok Fisheries Director Barry McCovey will provide an update on the Klamath dam removal project. Additionally, there will be an announcement about the naming of the new Raymond Mattz Boat Dock to permanently commemorate the Yurok man ’s many contributions to the tribal community and the lasting positive impact of Mattz v. Arnett.
Mattz v. Arnett changed the course of history for the Yurok Tribe. The precedent setting Supreme Court case enabled the Tribe to continue passing on the tradition of fishing from one generation to the next. The ruling set the stage for the Tribe to create a government by and for the Yurok people. It also laid the groundwork for the Tribe to manage the tribal fishery and regain authority over the Yurok Reservation.
The transformational court case started with the arrest of a Yurok citizen with a heart of gold and the spirit of a warrior. On September 24, 1969, a California Fish and Game warden confiscated five gill nets from Aawok Raymond Mattz at Brooks Riffle on the lower Klamath River. Shortly thereafter, the director of the California Fish and Game Department G Raymond Arnett initiated a hearing in state court to facilitate the forfeiture of the fishing equipment. Mattz intervened on the grounds that he was an enrolled Yurok tribal member the nets were seized on tribal lands and therefore, state statutes pertaining to the gill net ting of salmon did not apply to him. The state court state court of appeals and the United States District Court for the Northern District of California disagreed. Based on the 1892 Act, a deplorable piece of federal legislation passed to reinforce the General Allotment Act or Dawes Act, the judges claimed that Yurok Country was no longer tribal land. The Allotment Act allowed the US government to sell “surplus” tribal land to non-Indians and precipitated the loss of nearly 40 million acres of tribal property across the United States.
Undeterred by the lower courts’ rulings, Mattz appealed the case to the US Supreme Court. Represented by California Indian Legal Services, he, his family and his supporters fought for nearly four years to overturn the lower courts’ decisions.
On June 11, 1973, US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, “We conclude that the Klamath River Reservation was not terminated by the Act of June 17, 1892, and that the land within the boundaries of the reservation is still Indian country. The judgment of the Court of Appeal is reversed.”
In addition to preserving the Tribe’s fishing rights, land and sovereignty, the Supreme Court’s decision in Mattz v Arnett positively influence d the resolution of the long running Jessie Short Case. In 196 3, Jessie Short and few thousand Yurok citizens filed the case in an effort to recover revenue from logging operations on tribal lands when the Yurok Reservation was part of the Hoopa Reservation. The BIA administered the timber harvests to generate revenue for the benefit of local tribal citizens, but the agency solely distributed the proceeds to members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe The case was finally resolved in 1990s, when most of the living Yurok plaintiffs finally received compensation. The remaining plaintiffs received payment s in 2013. The Jessie Short Case paved the way for the Tribe to establish a base roll of 3,800 citizens. It also spurred the separation from the Hoopa Reservation via the Hoopa /Yurok Settlement Act and served as the foundation of the formal organization of the Yurok tribal government.
The decision in Mattz v Arnett also played a key role in the high profile ruling in the United States v Washington, dubbed the Boldt Decision after United States District Court Judge George Hugo Boldt who presided over the case. In 1974, Judge Boldt determined that certain tribes had rights to 50 percent of salmon harvests to provide the Indians with a livelihood d t ha t is to say, a moderate living.” The decision also afforded tribes the ability to regulate their own fisheries and co-manage natural resources with the state off of reservations. Called the most impactful case in Indian County, the Boldt Decision has been quoted in more than 100 Supreme Court cases involving everything from gaming to child custody.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Mattz v Arnett was incorporated into the US Department of the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor’s opinion regarding the Yurok Tribe’s sustainably managed salmon fishery on the Klamath River. In 1993, the Office of the Solicitor referenced Mattz v Arnett when it reaffirmed the Yurok Tribe’s “right to harvest quantities of fish sufficient to support a moderate standard of living or 50 percent of the harvest of Klamath Trinity basin salmon, whichever is less.”
Aawok Raymond Mattz was born on July 20, 1942. His parents, Emery and Geneva Brooks Mattz, raised him within the Tribe’s culture and traditions. They also instilled in him a strong sense of justice. At an early age, he saw his parents fight to preserve the Tribe’s ceremonies, rights and land. As a young man, Mattz passed on the Tribe’s traditions to his children, who he supported by fishing. He had a deep love for his family, his community and the Klamath River.
The proud Yurok man was not afraid to put himself in harm’s way to protect what was important to him Similar to Billy Frank Jr., Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.., Mattz was arrested numerous times for exercising his right s His Supreme Court case made him a target of bigoted law enforcement officers, who constantly harassed him Mattz was also mistreated by local non-Indian residents , who threatened him and hurled racial slurs at him on a regular basis. The turmoil did not stop after the Supreme Court case concluded.
In 1978, the Department of the Interior placed a moratorium on the Yurok Tribe ’s salmon fishery, due to low salmon runs. However, recreational and commercial fishers were still allowed to harvest fish. The salmon decline was linked to extensive clear-cut logging along the river. The loosely regulated logging industry had destroyed fish habitat and chocked the Klamath and its tributaries with sediment, but the federal government erroneously blamed the Tribe for the decline in salmon numbers. The prohibition did not sit well with the Yurok people.
Many Yurok families, including the Mattz family and Raymond Mattz participated in a prolonged campaign of peaceful civil disobedience in the face of the racially motivated fishing closure and continued to set nets. The peace was shattered when the Department of the Interior called in federal agents armed with assault rifles and tear gas to enforce the closure of tribal fishery Again, the Supreme Court case made Mattz a focus of the occupying force, which terrorized the tribal community for months. Clad in full riot gear, a group of federal agents, in coordination with members of the Humboldt and Del Norte Sheriffs Offices crashed high powered steel jetboats into small tribal fishing vessels on the river. They nearly drowned several Yurok people and hit many others with B illy clubs. On land, the agents assaulted Yurok women in front of their children. During the Salmon War, every Yurok citizen around at the time experienced one form of violence or another at the hands of law enforcement.
This tumultuous time period took a heavy toll on Mattz, but he proceeded to fight for his Tribe and the river. He went on to become an elected member of the Yurok Tribal Council. As the Requa District representative, he was a voice for the river, the fish and tribal fishers. In 2007 he and contingent of Yurok, Karuk and Hupa people traveled to Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, to put pressure on Warren Buffett then the richest person in the world to remove four dams from the Klamath River. The demonstration at the shareholders’ meeting represented a pivotal moment in the successful decades long tribally led campaign to remove the dams. The first dam will be deconstructed this year and the remaining three will be dismantled in 2024, when the Klamath will flow free for the first time more than a century. There is no doubt that Mattz would be proud of his people for making dam removal a reality.
“I am so happy that we can celebrate and begin to heal our community as our river begins to heal too,” concluded Susan Masten.