By: Kele Bigknife | Guest Blogger
Theodore J. Griswold | Partner |

Happy Holidays!  While many know of Rudolph and his famous red nose, some don’t realize that reindeer are real (albeit flightless) animals.  While not native to North America, reindeer have been a vital part of American Indian/Alaska Natives’ (“AI/AN”) survival and industry in ways well beyond Christmas time fables.

By the mid-1800s, AI/AN were facing dire circumstances with diminished natural food supplies, which largely consisted of caribou, marine mammals, and berries.  The shortage was caused by depletion of natural resources as the U.S. expanded into the Alaskan territory, bringing a rising non-Native population, a proliferation of firearms, and extensive commercial hunting markets.  After seeing the grim situation that non-Native settlers had brought upon AI/AN, the federal government sought to provide a sustainable food source for them.  The answer came in the form of sixteen reindeer delivered from Siberia, Russia to the Seward Peninsula, AK in 1891.

Many AI/AN were trained in reindeer animal husbandry and herding, but met significant competition from non-Natives.  In response, Congress enacted the Reindeer Industry Act of 1937, which gave AI/AN exclusive control over the reindeer industry.  Congress ironically mandated that the (imported) reindeer economy be operated by AI/AN in their “native way” and in their “native lands”.   Subsidies were given to Natives to stabilize the reindeer economy and to foster its growth.  Congress’ final goal was to promote self-sufficiency and sustenance for AI/AN communities, giving them the opportunity to remain in their native lands and continue to practice their “traditional way” of life.  AI/AN were able to survive in the fickle Alaskan economy, using reindeer for food, clothing, transportation of goods, and even use as U.S. postal delivery animals.

This ironic effort faced a constitutional challenge in 1997 in Williams v. Babbitt, where the court held that Congress could not exclude non-Natives from the reindeer industry, since that the Act did not pertain to unique AI/AN interests.  While the reindeer industry is now open to all participants, it continues to be a vital part of AI/AN life to this day, even if it is not part of their pre-contact heritage.

As you gather with your family and loved ones this holiday, and after belting out Rudolph and his colleagues, refer back to this post and “drop” some serious reindeer knowledge on those that will listen.

Kele Bigknife is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a graduate of University of Michigan Law School.  Kele was a recipient of the 2016 Procopio Native American Internship and currently is Regulatory Affairs and Corporate Counsel at ecoATM Gazelle.

Procopio_Griswold_Theodore_Bio Photo

Ted Griswold is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with him at and 619.515.3277.



By: Racheal M. White Hawk | Associate |
Theodore J. Griswold | Partner |

A majority of the Arizona Supreme Court recently held, over a compelling dissent, that the Hopi Tribe has no claim for public nuisance against a ski resort that uses snow made from sewerage on land that the Tribe has used for millennia for ceremonial and religious practices.  See Hopi Tribe v. Ariz. Snowbowl Resort Ltd. P’ship, No. CV-18-0057-PR, 2018 WL 6205003 (Ariz. Nov. 29, 2018).  The decision is the culmination of over a decade and a half of litigation between tribes in northern Arizona and the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort.

Nearly sixteen years ago, the ski resort planned to purchase sewage subjected to limited treatment from the City of Flagstaff to make snow and accommodate more skiers at the resort on the San Francisco Peaks, an area sacred to several tribes.  The Peaks are located on federal land in the Coconino National Forest.  After the federal government approved the use of the sewer snow on the Peaks, tribes and environmental groups sued, alleging violations of various environmental and religious freedom laws.  The tribes and environmental groups ultimately lost in federal court.  See Navajo Nation v. U.S. Forest Serv., 535 F.3d 1058 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc).

This case was brought in Arizona state court by the Hopi Tribe, asserting that the use of sewer snow causes a public nuisance.  Members of the Hopi Tribe go to the Peaks to pray each month, collecting water, herbs, and greens there for use in ceremonial and religious practices.  The Peaks have been recognized by the U.S. Forest Service as a Traditional Cultural Property and are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Court documents showed that the sewer snow used on the Peaks by the ski resort contains contaminants from Flagstaff’s sewer system, including waste, legal and illicit drugs, hormones, insecticides, chemicals that interfere with the biological processes of wildlife, and elevated nitrogen levels that may increase the presence of invasive plant species and destroy native flora and fauna as well as negatively impact the overall ecosystem and endangered species of the area.  The sewer snow damages the Hopi Tribe’s use of the Peaks in particular by contaminating sacred land, shrines, springs, and other natural resources used in traditional Hopi ceremonial practices, turning “formerly pure ceremonial locations into a secondary sewer,” as the dissent put it.

In rejecting the Tribe’s public nuisance claim, the majority of the Arizona Supreme Court held that the Tribe’s injury was no different than, as the dissent stated, “a weekend hiker or concerned environmentalist.”  The majority failed to appreciate, as the dissent said, “that the wastewater will affect the Hopi’s use and enjoyment of ancestral lands that have played a central role in Hopi culture and religion since before the Coconino National Forest was of concern to the broader public.”  Instead, the majority held that the Tribe’s injury from the ski resort was the same as the general public’s harm, even though only tribes have claimed to use the land for such purposes.

The majority went on to hold that as a matter of law the Hopi Tribe could not assert a public nuisance claim because it did not have a property or pecuniary interest in the land or resources at issue.  As the dissent recognized, the majority unduly limited the state’s public nuisance law to protect only material interests, denying protection for religious traditions and practices manifested since before recorded history and recognized by federal law, which requires that Indians have access to national forests for traditional and cultural purposes.  See 25 U.S.C. § 3054.

In denying the Hopi Tribe’s public nuisance claim, the majority embraced an “ownership model” of property law, relying on the heavily criticized U.S. Supreme Court decision Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass’n, 485 U.S. 439 (1988).  See, e.g., Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law § 14.03[2][c][ii][B], at 968–71 (Nell Jessup Newton ed., 2012) (citing scholarly criticisms of Lyng and executive and legislative branch actions in response to Lyng to protect Indian sacred sites).  Indeed, scholars assert that this narrow ownership model of property law that courts, including the majority in this Hopi Tribe case, have used to deny Indian religious claims is neither descriptively accurate (because property law has long protected the rights of non-owners) nor normatively desirable (because property law should address the conflicting interests of those with legitimate claims to land and resources).  See, e.g., Kristen A. Carpenter, A Property Rights Approach to Sacred Sites Cases: Asserting a Place for Indians as Nonowners, 52 UCLA L. Rev. 1061, 1089 (2005) (citing numerous scholarly works).

Although the Arizona Supreme Court majority rejected the Hopi Tribe’s public nuisance claim in this case, a persuasive dissent was not only written, but included two seemingly ideologically-opposed jurists.  The dissent offers a glimmer of hope for Indian sacred site protection in the future.  Moreover, perhaps Indian country will see better sacred site protection in the legislative branch, as one of two Native Americans joining the next Congress, Deb Haaland, included sacred site protection as a priority in her climate and environment platform.

Procopio will continue to monitor laws and cases affecting sacred sites and we are happy to assist tribes in finding ways to ensure sacred site protection.

Procopio_White_Hawk_RachealRacheal M. White Hawk (Rosebud Sioux Tribe) is an Associate and member of Procopio’s Native American Law Practice Group.  Racheal is a member of the Arizona Bar, and she has passed the California Bar Exam, but she is not licensed to practice in California.  Connect with Racheal at and 619.906.5654.

Procopio_Griswold_Theodore_Bio PhotoTed Griswold is head of Procopio’s Native American Law Practice Group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle.  Connect with Ted at and 619.515.3277.