On May 20, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order returning 21,000 acres of forest land to the Yakama Nation of Washington and resolving a century-long dispute over reservation boundaries.
The order returned to tribal territory the east side of Mount Adams, a nearly 10,000-foot, snow-covered peak that is one of the Yakama Nation’s sacred mountains. The Yakama Treaty of 1855, which created the reservation, erroneously omitted the mountain.
“When we were negotiating the treaty, our elders made sure to include Mount Adams within the reservation boundaries,” said Emily Washines, a spokeswoman for Yakama Nation Fisheries. “The treaty sparked the Yakama battles that took place between 1855 and 1859 and finally the treaty was ratified, but at that point they made a surveying error that cut Mount Adams out of the reservation boundaries.”
In 1897, President Grover Cleveland created the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve near the western boundary of the Yakama Reservation. Ten years later, President Theodore Roosevelt extended the boundary of the forest to include a tract of 21,000 acres, then assumed to be public land.
In 1942, a portion of the tract was designated the Mount Adams Wild area; and between 1964 and 1972, it was considered public land under the Wilderness Act. When Nixon returned the land to the Yakama, it was part of a larger tract known as the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
“This action rights a wrong going back 65 years,” Nixon said as he signed the executive order. “The U.S. Government lost the treaty map in its own files and by the time it was found actions had been taken which had mistakenly displaced the Indians from this land.”
The executive order was a victory for the Yakama Nation, a confederacy of 14 tribes and bands in south central Washington that revered Mount Adams as an important and legendary landmark. The mountain, also known as Pahto, is one of five sisters who comprise the Yakama Nation’s five sacred mountains.
Pahto was jealous of Washxim, or Simcoe Mountain, because she was the first to greet the sun every morning. So Pahto chopped off Waxshim’s head, leaving the mountain with a flattened top. As a punishment, the Creator put an eagle over Pahto. Despite Pahto’s act of aggression, the mountain still delivers clear spring waters and many sources of food.
“Mount Adams is important spiritually, but it also is a source of a lot of resources,” Washines said. “Creeks come down, animals live there and berries are harvested. We also have traditionally gathered there as families.”
Immediately after it lost Mount Adams, the tribe began working to get it back. Before it was successful, however, it had to raise up a generation of savvy leaders.
“As each generation grew up, one of the things the elders would reiterate was that this was an error on the part of the U.S., this was something we needed to fix,” Washines said. “Our children were raised knowing this, hearing this. We finally had a generation that understood the laws and spoke English and could take the case to the government.”
The first victory came in 1966 when the Indian Claims Commission found that the land was rightfully part of the Yakama Reservation. But the commission had authority only to reimburse the tribe for lands lost, not correct the mistake.
The tribe then partnered with other Indigenous Peoples in similar circumstances—and caught the attention of the national media, said Johnson Meninick, cultural resource program manager for the Yakama Nation. Meninick was a member of the tribal council when Nixon returned the land.
“The original surveyors were all mixed up,” he said. “We always knew the tract had been left out of the treaty, but we had to complain for years before we got it back. Our forefathers fought for it for 50 years before it finally went through.”
In his signing statement, Nixon acknowledged the “unintentional but mistaken actions” of the federal government and the Indian Claims Commission’s inability to return the land. Roosevelt’s 1907 executive order “did not constitute a ‘taking’ of the land by the government in the legal sense,” Nixon said, so the land could be restored through executive order.
When he received news that the mountain was returned, Yakama Tribal Council Chairman Robert Jim praised Nixon. “Although we have not fared well in other claims or treaty matters, the President of the United States, representing Indians as their trustee, in returning Mount Adams has shown the world the caliber leader he is,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the halls of conference centers, homes and offices, the people could be heard saying, “We got the mountain back; we got the mountain back,” Washines said.