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Justice for Native Americans, more than a century later

“Great nations, like great men, should keep their word,” as Justice Hugo Black said in his dissent from a Supreme Court opinion that permitted the U.S. government to flood part of the Tuscarora reservation in upstate New York. To Black’s rule we should add another: “Great nations, like great men, are not afraid to apologize.”

Legislators in Washington state observed this principle when they passed a law in 2014 enabling Native American defendants tried before 1975 to have their convictions overturned if they were exercising treaty-reserved rights to fish at “usual and accustomed places” off reservation. If those people are now deceased, family members may appeal on their behalf, allowing restorative justice even in cases that date back 100 years.

In 2015, Superior Court Judge Carrie Runge vacated the conviction of Yakama citizen George Meninock, who stood trial a century ago for breaking state law at a traditional fishery called Top-tut on the Yakima River. In July, the Washington State Supreme Court finally cleared the name of his fellow defendant, Alec Towessnute, after hearing an Opinion appeal brought by Yakama attorney Jack Fiander. “We cannot forget our own history, and we cannot change it,” the high court declared. “We can, however, forge a new path forward, committing to justice as we do so.”

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