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Chris Aadland
Underscore News and ICT

WHITE SWAN, Wash. – Jim Thomas drew chuckles from the 200 or so gathered inside the White Swan Pavilion on the Yakama Indian Reservation with his practiced imitation of the low, raspy voice actor Marlon Brando used for his role in "The Godfather."

Thomas recalled how he convinced Brando to become a member of a committee working to resolve a land ownership dispute — and how Brando later, using his “Godfather” voice, told legendary newsman Walter Cronkite to meet face-to-face with Thomas and to “treat him with the same respect as you would with me.” Cronkite listened, later highlighting Thomas’ work on the Yakama land dispute during his evening news broadcast.

“We got 15 minutes,” Thomas said on Sept. 23. “Nobody gets 15 minutes on a national program. We did.” Thomas is now a Tlingit elder whose career included working as a White House staff member, a spokesman for the National Congress of American Indians and starting his own Washington D.C.-based public relations office.

(Previous: Fifty years ago: Mount Adams returned to Yakama people)

But reminiscing about Brando’s legendary acting career and life wasn’t what brought leaders and citizens of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation together on Friday, Sept. 23 with representatives of other Pacific Northwest tribes and non-Native community members. Nor had they come early for the tribe’s annual National Indian Powwow, which would take place starting later on Friday afternoon and go through the weekend.

Yakama Nation Indian Days royalty pose with Jim Thomas, Tlingit, after presenting him with a blanket given to him to honor him for his help during the tribe's campaign to have the federal government honor promises it made when signing a treaty with the tribe in 1855 guaranteeing Mount Adams was included in its reservation. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Tulee, Yakama Nation)

They had come to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the first examples of a tribal nation reclaiming lost land: May 23, 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed an executive order returning to the Yakama Nation the eastern slope of the more than 12,200-foot tall volcanic Mount Adams — revered by the Yakama as one of its most important landmarks.

Marlon Brando played only a supporting role.

The tribe had spent decades fighting the federal government to honor a treaty that included the mountain, known as Pahto to the Yakamas, in its 1.3 million-acre reservation.

“We’re here today to recognize that every branch of government has affirmed once and for all, [that] Pahto will always be a gift from the creator,” Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman Delano Saluskin said. “This land is ours and it will always be ours.”

Before signing the land cession treaty that included Mt. Adams, Yakama homelands spanned millions of acres. On Pahto, the people of the Yakama Nation, a confederacy of 14 tribes and bands, could find plentiful roots, berries, nuts and game, while the annual snowmelt nourished the surrounding land. Culturally, the mountain is significant, too. According to tribal legends, Pahto is one of five sisters who comprise the Yakama Nation’s five sacred mountains.

In the late 1800s, surveying errors and misplaced treaty maps are allegedly what caused the government to include more than 120,000 acres of Yakama land in the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve. In 1908, the land became part of what is now known as the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

While a 1966 federal Indian Claims Commission ruling found that the land was rightfully part of the Yakama Reservation, the U.S. government refused to return the land, agreeing only to a monetary settlement.

That was unacceptable, said Thomas, who played an important role after Yakama leaders asked him to help organize the land return effort and act as a spokesman for the tribe during the effort.

Makah tribal youth share traditional dances for attendees of an event marking the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon signing an executive order returning half of Mount Adams to the Yakama Nation. The Makah Tribe was honored at the event on Sept. 23 for its efforts advocating on behalf of the Yakama Nation during the tribe's pressure campaign. (Chris Aadland/Underscore News, ICT)

As the White House continued to resist returning the land, Thomas and the tribe, led by then-Chairman Robert Jim, convinced Brando of the injustice the Yakama people were struggling against. Thomas said the tribe was invited to appear on some of the country’s most widely watched TV programs, like the Today Show.

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That public spotlight, plus pressure and support from U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, and the persistence of Yakama leaders who would accept nothing less than the government keeping the promises it made in the 1855 treaty, culminated in Nixon finally agreeing to issue his executive order. Thomas said it took 14 months from the time he and other tribal leaders ramped up their public pressure campaign seeking the return of Pahto.

Thomas said the struggle shows Yakama and Indigenous youth that they don’t have to settle for less than what their rights.

“When they go up against that man from Europe, they can speak with authority and speak with the strength of a mountain behind them because it’s theirs,” he said.

‘There will always be that beautiful mountain’

The actual anniversary of the executive order was exactly four months before the Sept. 23 commemoration. The celebration included drumming, dancing by Yakama youth and young dancers from the Makah Nation and speeches from tribal leaders and others, like Thomas, who played a role in the fight. Attendees enjoyed a meal of salmon, venison, huckleberries, corn and pumpkin pie ahead of the tribe’s annual National Indian Days opening ceremonies and powwow.

The celebration could have been marked by a more uncertain mood. Klickitat County, which has borders that overlap with the Yakama reservation, tried to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case where it argued that Pahto and 121,000 acres of reservation land known as Tract D were incorrectly included in the reservation’s boundaries and should instead be owned by the state of Washington.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld previous court rulings in favor of the Yakama Nation, declining to hear the case and affirming that the mountain and rest of Tract D was correctly included in the reservation’s boundaries.

“Despite President Nixon’s proclamation, Klickitat County still tried to rewrite history,” Saluskin said.

Yakama Nation military veterans open an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon signing an executive order that returned half of Mount Adams to the tribe by marching throughout the tribe's White Swan Pavilion during an honor song on Sept. 23, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Tulee, Yakama Nation)

Those who ensured that the Yakama half of Adams remained so — attorneys, historians and other experts who had researched the border dispute and testified on behalf of the tribe — were also honored during Friday’s commemoration.

Still, other threats remain to ancestral Yakama homelands, like a proposed “pumped storage” renewable energy project proposal alongside the Columbia River. The tribe has publicly opposed that project because of unavoidable destruction and damage it would cause to cultural and spiritual sites.

A number of tribes in Washington state, including the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, the Makah Tribe and the Lummi Tribe, have publicly supported the Yakama Nation’s opposition to the project.

Leaders and citizens of three of those tribal nations who have pushed government regulators to halt the project, attended and were honored at the Sept. 23 commemoration for a present-day partnership that dates back to the years before Nixon signed the order.

“We acknowledge that in everything we do, and what we share with you today, is a gift, a gift from our god, our creator, to be able to do our part, to show our love and to be here and to stand here with you today like we did fifty years ago,” Makah Tribal Council Chairman TJ Greene told attendees. “We know that our fights never end, and we’ll continue to be here.”

Those three tribes were especially instrumental, according to a letter then-tribal council Chairman Robert Jim wrote in the program for the first celebration after Nixon signed the order. The three tribes supported Yakama efforts by traveling with Yakama leaders to help advocate for the return of the mountain, by speaking on the tribe’s behalf at public events and by introducing Yakama leaders to federal officials who might help.

“The [tribe] will never have the opportunity to thank all those whose thoughts and prayers were with us,” Jim wrote in his program letter. “Please remember though, that while these pages will wither with time, there will always be that beautiful mountain, 12,000 feet in majesty, caring for the people of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Indian Nation.”

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This story is co-published by Underscore News and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.