Daniel Lee


Historically, the San Carlos Apache Tribe depended on the Gila River to irrigate crops and sustain a population of around 14,000 tribe members. The river is also sacred to the Tribe and central to the Tribe’s culture and spirituality. Initially, the federal government had recognized the Tribe’s dependence on the Gila River by reserving, under the Winters doctrine, water rights necessary to support the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Acting as the Tribe’s trustee, the United States entered into the Globe Equity Decree (the Decree), which prevented the San Carlos Apache Tribe from claiming water rights under the Winters doctrine and awarded significant water rights to private parties and other Indian tribes. In particular, this Note focuses on the Federal Circuit’s decision in 2011 that the San Carlos Apache Tribe could not seek damages against the United States for improperly diminishing the Tribe’s reserved water rights to the Gila River under the Decree because the court determined that the statute of limitations had run. This Note argues that the case was wrongly decided. It then proposes two new analytical devices to overcome the recent trend of courts denying remedies to tribes based on supposedly unambiguous language of treaties, statutes, and decrees.