Supreme Court Upholds Yakama Treaty Rights and Pre-Empts State of Washington’s Fuel Tax

Published on Mar 19, 2019

Supreme Court Upholds Yakama Treaty Rights and Pre-Empts State of Washington’s Fuel Tax 

On March 19, 2019 the Supreme Court of the United States announced its decision in Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc. upholding long-standing treaty rights held by the Yakama Nation. In Cougar Den, the Supreme Court considered whether a Washington State tax on motor vehicle fuel importers who bring fuel into the state via ground transportation violated the right to travel provision of the 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation.

In 2013, the state of Washington Licensing Department assessed Cougar Den Inc. $3.6million in taxes, penalties, and licensing fees for importing fuel into the state of Washington. Cougar Den is a company owned by a member of the Yakama Nation and incorporated under the laws of the Yakama Nation that imports fuel into the state for sale to Yakama-owned gas stations on the Tribe’s reservation.

Five Justices agreed with the Washington Supreme Court that the 1855 treaty pre-empts the state of Washington’s fuel tax.

In response to the decision, NCAI President Jefferson Keel said “today the U.S. Supreme Court got it right, affirming that treaties are indeed the supreme law of the land. This decision is wholly consistent with the federal government’s role in ensuring that treaties and other agreements are honored by states and other parties that seek to limit Indian Country’s sovereign authority. We congratulate the Yakama Nation and hope its tribal businesses can quickly overcome any undue hardship this litigation has caused and move forward with unfettered certainty.”

Justice Breyer announced the judgement of the Court and was joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion and was joined by Justice Ginsberg. Chief Justice Roberts provided a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Kavanaugh, Thomas, and Alito. Justice Kavanaugh also provided a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Thomas.

For the Supreme Court’s opinion, please click here.

For the NCAI Amicus Brief, please click here.


About the Native American Rights Fund:

Since 1971, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has provided legal assistance to Indian tribes, organizations, and individuals nationwide who might otherwise have gone without adequate representation. Throughout its history, NARF has impacted tens of thousands of Indian people in its work for more than 250 tribes. NARF has defended the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) for decades, and will continue to do so. For more information, visit

About the National Congress of American Indians:

Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country. NCAI advocates on behalf of tribal governments and communities, promoting strong tribal-federal government-to-government policies, and promoting a better understanding among the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people and rights. For more information, visit

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