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decided: March 5, 1962.



Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker, Stewart

Author: Frankfurter

[ 369 U.S. Page 61]

 MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a companion case to No. 2, Metlakatla Indian Community v. Egan, ante, p. 45, but calls for separate treatment. Appellants seek the reversal of a decision of the Supreme Court of Alaska, Alaska , 362 P. 2d 901, affirming the dismissal of their petitions for injunctions against interference with their operation of fish traps in southeastern Alaska.

The Organized Village of Kake and the Angoon Community Association are corporations chartered under the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, 48 Stat. 984, 988, as amended, 49 Stat. 1250 (1936), 25 U. S. C. §§ 473a, 476, 477. Kake is located on Kupreanof Island, 100 miles south of Juneau. Angoon is located on Admiralty Island, 60 miles south of Juneau. They are occupied by Thlinget or Tlinget Indians, native to Alaska.

Both communities are entirely dependent upon salmon fishing. In pursuance of a policy to create a sound fishing economy for the two groups, the United States purchased canneries and related properties for Angoon in 1948 and for Kake in 1950. Since these dates appellants have operated fish traps at specified locations in nearby waters, under permits granted by the Army Engineers to erect traps in navigable waters and by the United States Forest Service to anchor them in the Tongass National Forest. In March 1959 the Secretary of the Interior, by regulations issued under authority of the White Act, 43 Stat. 464, as amended, 48 U. S. C. §§ 221-228, and the Alaska Statehood Act, 72 Stat. 339, permitted Angoon to operate three fish traps during the 1959 season and Kake four. 24 Fed. Reg. 2053, 2069. The following year the Secretary authorized permanent operation of these trapsites and specified one additional site for Angoon and five

[ 369 U.S. Page 62]

     more for Kake for possible future authorization. 25 CFR (1961 Supp.) pt. 88.

The history of this litigation is recited in Metlakatla Indian Community v. Egan, supra. It is sufficient to note here that Alaska in 1959 threatened to enforce against Kake and Angoon her anti-fish-trap conservation law, Alaska Laws 1959, c. 17, as amended by id., c. 95; that the State seized one fish trap at Kake, arrested the President of the Kake Village Council and the foreman of the crew attempting to moor the trap, and filed informations against them; that suit was filed by both Kake and Angoon in the interim United States District Court for Alaska to enjoin this interference with their claimed fishing rights; and that the dismissal of both complaints was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Alaska.

The situation here differs from that of the Metlakatlans in that neither Kake nor Angoon has been provided with a reservation and in that there is no statutory authority under which the Secretary of the Interior might permit either to operate fish traps contrary to state law. Appellants do not rely heavily on the Secretary's regulations. Neither the White Act nor the Statehood Act, cited by the Secretary, supports a grant of immunity from state law. The White Act was a conservation and anti-monopoly measure. It authorized the Secretary to limit fishing times, places, and equipment in order to conserve fish but forbade him in so doing to create exclusive rights, even in Indians. Hynes v. Grimes Packing Co., 337 U.S. 86, 122-123. Because the rights claimed are exclusive in the Kakes and Angoons, they cannot have been created pursuant to the White Act, even though that statute now applies, if at all, only to Indians. Moreover, the White Act gives the Secretary power only to limit fishing, not to grant rights. The Statehood Act retained "absolute jurisdiction and control" of Indian

[ 369 U.S. Page 63]

     "property (including fishing rights)" in the United States, but it did not give powers of the nature claimed to the Secretary of the Interior. No other source of authority appears available. The provisions now found in 25 U. S. C. §§ 2 and 9, referring to the President's power to prescribe regulations for effectuating statutes "relating to Indian affairs," to settle accounts of "Indian affairs," and concerning "the management of all Indian affairs and of all matters arising out of Indian relations," derive from statutes of 1832 and 1834, 4 Stat. 564 and 4 Stat. 735, 738. In keeping with the policy of almost total tribal self-government prevailing when these statutes were passed, see pp. 71-72, infra, the Interior Department itself is of the opinion that the sole authority conferred by the first of these is that to implement specific laws, and by the second that over relations between the United States and the Indians -- not a general power to make rules governing Indian conduct. United States Department of the Interior, Federal Indian Law (1958), pp. 54-55; Cohen, Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1945), p. 102. We agree that they do not support the fish-trap regulations.

Both communities operate their traps under permits granted by the Army Corps of Engineers and by the United States Forest Service. But neither of these permits grants a right to be free of state regulation or prohibition. Like a certification by the Interstate Commerce Commission, each is simply acknowledgment that the activity does not violate federal law, and not an exemption from state licensing or police power requirements. Cf. Maurer v. Hamilton, 309 U.S. 598; South Carolina Highway Dept. v. Barnwell Bros., 303 U.S. 177. The Engineers have no objection under the Rivers and Harbors Act, 30 Stat. 1121, 1151, 33 U. S. C. § 403, to the obstruction of navigable streams incident to the operation of fish traps at Kake and Angoon; the Forest Service has

[ 369 U.S. Page 64]

     no objection to the use of National Forest land to anchor them. Neither attempted to exempt these traps from state law.

As in the companion case, certain grounds relied on by the Alaska court are no longer urged by the State. The principal dispute now concerns the meaning of § 4 of the Statehood Act, in which the State disclaimed all right and title to and the United States retained "absolute jurisdiction and control" over, inter alia, "any lands or other property (including fishing rights), the right or title to which may be held by any Indians, Eskimos, or Aleuts (hereinafter called natives) or is held by the United States in trust for said natives."

The United States in its brief amicus curiae contended that the reservation of absolute jurisdiction over Indian "property (including fishing rights)" ousted the State from any regulation of fishing by Indians in Alaska. Appellants urge that Congress intended to protect the Indians in their freedom to continue fishing as they had done before statehood, so that Alaska cannot interfere with the Indian fishing actually practiced at that time. They argue in addition that in using fish traps they were exercising an aboriginal right to fish that was protected by § 4. The court below concluded that aboriginal rights of Alaskan natives have been extinguished, that appellants have no rights not enjoyed in common with all other Alaskans, and that § 4 protects only exclusive rights given Indians by federal law.

The United States wisely abandoned its position that Alaska has disclaimed the power to legislate with respect to any fishing activities of Indians in the State. Legislative history reveals no such intention in Congress, which was concerned with the protection of certain Indian claims in existence at the time of statehood. See, e. g., Hearings Before House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs on H. R. 2535 and related bills, 84th Cong., 1st Sess.

[ 369 U.S. Page 65124]

     -131, 266-267, 381-383 (1955). But we cannot accept Alaska's contention that Indian "property (including fishing rights)" refers only to property owned by or held for Indians under provisions of federal law. Section 4 must be construed in light of the circumstances of its formulation and enactment. See Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States, 248 U.S. 78, 87. Congress was aware that few such rights existed in Alaska. Its concern was to preserve the status quo with respect to aboriginal and possessory Indian claims, so that statehood would neither extinguish them nor recognize them as compensable. See, e. g., House Hearings, supra, 130, 384 (1955) (Delegate Bartlett); Hearings Before Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs on S. 50, 83d Cong., 2d Sess. 227 (Senator Jackson), 260-261 (1954).*fn1

Discussion during hearings on the 1955 House bill affords further evidence that claims not based on federal law are included. Section 205 of that bill (like § 6 of the bill as enacted) authorized Alaska to select large tracts of United States land for transfer to state ownership. It was understood that the disclaimer provision left the State free to choose Indian "property" if it desired, but that such a taking would leave unimpaired the Indians' right

[ 369 U.S. Page 66]

     to sue the United States for any compensation that might later be established to be due. See House Hearings, supra, 135 (1955) (Delegate Bartlett). Feeling that experience had shown this procedure too slow to give prompt relief to the Indians, Oklahoma's Representative Edmondson proposed to exempt Indian property from the State's selection. Id., at 381. This was rejected as virtually destroying Alaska's right to select lands. For, although Representative Edmondson pointed out that the disclaimer extended only to property owned by Indians or held in trust for them, four representatives clearly stated their belief that the disclaimer included not just the few Alaska reservations but also the aboriginal or other unproved claims in dispute, which covered most if not all of Alaska. Id., at 383 (Representatives Engle, Dawson, Metcalf, Westland).

"Fishing rights" first appeared in a Senate bill reported in 1951, S. Rep. No. 315, 82d Cong., 1st Sess. 2. Earlier bills had mentioned only land. The fishing-rights provision is unique to Alaska, although the disclaimer is in other respects the same as in earlier statutes. See pp. 67-68, infra. It was included because fishing rights are of vital importance to Indians in Alaska. House Hearings, supra, 125 (1955) (Delegate Bartlett). The existence of aboriginal fishing rights was affirmed by the Interior Department's Solicitor in 1942, 57 I. D. 461. There was almost no discussion of "fishing rights" in Congress. In earlier hearings the Senate Committee was considering a suggestion by Senator Cordon that all Indian property be granted to the State, reserving the right to seek federal compensation, except for property actually occupied by Indians. Asked to describe Indian possessory rights, Governor Heintzleman portrayed a smokehouse beside a stream, 50 miles from the town where they live, visited for fishing purposes perhaps two weeks each year. Senate Hearings, supra, 137 (1954).

[ 369 U.S. Page 67]

     On a similar basis the Kakes and the Angoons have fished at the disputed locations since 1948 and 1950. It appears to be Alaskan custom that, although traps are taken from the water and replaced each year, one does not "jump" a trap-site. The prior claim of the first trapper is respected. See United States v. Libby, McNeil & Libby, 14 Alaska 37, 42, 107 F.Supp. 697, 700 (D. Alaska 1952); Gruening, The State of Alaska (1954), p. 171; 57 I. D. 461, 462 (1942). The Statehood Act by no means makes any claim of appellants to fishing rights compensable against the United States; neither does it extinguish such claims. The disclaimer was intended to preserve unimpaired the right of any Indian claimant to assert his claim, whether based on federal law, aboriginal right or simply occupancy, against the Government. Appellants' claims are "property (including fishing rights)" within § 4.

Because § 4 of the Statehood Act provides that Indian "property (including fishing rights)" shall not only be disclaimed by the State as a proprietary matter but also "shall be and remain under the absolute jurisdiction and control of the United States," the parties have proceeded on the assumption that if Kake and Angoon are found to possess "fishing rights" within the meaning of this section the State cannot apply her law. Consequently argument has centered upon whether appellants have any such "rights."

The assumption is erroneous. Although the reference to fishing rights is unique, the retention of "absolute" federal jurisdiction over Indian lands adopts the formula of nine prior statehood Acts. Indian lands in Arizona remained "under the absolute jurisdiction and control" of the United States, 36 Stat. 557, 569; yet in Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. ...

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