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Wilson Begay

Other Oregon exonerations
In April 2017, 49-year-old Wilson Begay was an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation and lifelong resident of Celilo Village, an unincorporated Native American community on the Columbia River in northeastern Wasco County, Oregon. He was involved in the gathering of salmon and deer for the Yakamas’ seasonal First Foods Feast.

In pursuit of that task, on April 15, 2017, Begay was driving on a county road southeast of The Dalles, the largest city in Wasco County, when he accidentally struck a deer with his vehicle. The deer was injured but ran into a vacant field. Begay stopped and found the deer. It was critically injured, so Begay killed it with his knife. The parcel of land was in an area that had been traditionally hunted by the Yakama.

Not long after, Sgt. Andrew Vanderwerf, a sergeant with the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife division began investigating. After a landowner led Vanderwerf to a spot where he found deer entrails and blood, Vanderwerf concluded that the killing had occurred on privately owned land.

On June 12, 2017, Begay was charged with unlawfully taking a game animal. Before trial, his attorney, Robert Raschio, filed a notice of his intent to rely on a defense that, as a member of the Yakama Nation, Begay had a right to hunt on “open and unclaimed land,” as set out in the Yakama Treaty of 1855.

The Wasco County District Attorney’s office filed a motion asking the trial court to bar the defense from offering evidence, arguments and jury instructions relating to the Treaty, “any rights under that Treaty,” and Begay’s status as an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation.

During a hearing on the motion, Begay testified that he didn’t open any fences or cross a fence while hunting. “There were no signs where I was hunting,” he testified. “If I see a sign that says no trespassing, then I don’t go there.” Begay also said that if he sees any sign of ownership, he will “find the owner and ask” before hunting there. “That’s how…we’ve always done things—work with people, talk with people.”

Johnson Jay Meninick, Cultural Resource Program Manager for the Yakama Nation, testified that the Yakama historical hunting grounds “go clear into Burns, Oregon, into Canada, British Columbia. And we traveled all over, and we hunted buffalo up into Montana and Wyoming, the Teton Mountains. So our hunting area is broad.”

He said the Yakama had “roamed the country [in] all different areas, both sides of the Columbia River, up in the high country, low country,” including “the upland area of Wasco County and…in the fields out in that region.”

Vanderwerf testified that the land where the deer was killed was located beside a county road in “a desolate farming area” of Wasco County and was privately owned. He said it was a downhill slope and the “kill site” was 30 yards from the county road. He said there were no fences near the site, though there was a fence on the other side of the road and another several hundred feet away from the site. He said there were no buildings nearby and no vehicles were parked on the land. He said no crop was planted—the land was covered with grass stubble and sagebrush. He saw “a silo or something” in the “far, far distance,” but the area around the kill was “just an open field.”

The judge ruled that the defense could not invoke the Treaty. On October 18, 2018, Begay went to trial before a six-person jury in Wasco County Circuit Court. The jury convicted Begay of one count of unlawfully taking wildlife. He was sentenced to one year on probation, a $1,000 fine, and his hunting license was suspended for three years.

Deputy public defender John Evans appealed the conviction and argued that the evidence relating to the Treaty should have been allowed. Evans contended that the Treaty “safeguards the right of the Yakama Nation to hunt on ‘open and unclaimed land.’” He argued that the Nation would have understood open and unclaimed land to refer to land that bore no visible signs of ownership—“land that had no fences, cultivated fields, buildings, signs, or other such landmarks.”

Evans relied upon a section of the Treaty which provides: “The exclusive right of taking fish in all the streams, where running through or bordering said reservation, is further secured to said confederated tribes and bands of Indians, as also the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places, in common with the citizens of the Territory, and of erecting temporary buildings for curing them; together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses and cattle upon open and unclaimed land.”

The prosecution argued that the same family had owned the property since the 1880s and that the land immediately surrounding the property was cultivated. The prosecution noted that a county road ran through the property and the land on the other side of the road was fenced as was the land on the downhill side of the land where Begay killed the deer. “There was a farm structure within view of the parcel,” the prosecution argued.

On June 30, 2021, the Oregon Court of Appeals vacated Wilson’s conviction.

The appeals court noted that the Treaty does not define the terms “open” and “unclaimed.” The court reviewed the notes of the Treaty negotiations and concluded, “[W]e think the Yakama would have understood that their reserved hunting rights extended to unfenced lands that were not occupied by settlers,” the court said. “[We] think the Yakama negotiators would have understood ‘occupied’ to mean actually physical occupation by settlers—an understanding that is consistent with the Indian negotiators’ cultural understanding of land occupancy.” That understanding did not extend to “legal title,” the court said.

The court pointed to Jones v. Meehan, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1899 that declared: "In construing any treaty between the United States and an Indian tribe, it must borne in mind that the negotiations for the treaty are conducted, on the part of the United States, an enlightened and powerful nation, by representatives skilled in diplomacy, masters of a written language, understanding the modes and forms of creating the various technical estates known to their law, and assisted by an interpreter employed by themselves; that the treaty is drawn up by them and in their own language; that the Indians, on the other hand...ha[d] no written language and [we]re wholly unfamiliar with all the forms of legal expression, and whose only knowledge of the terms in which the treaty is framed is that imparted to them by the interpreter.”

The Court of Appeals said, “In short, we are not persuaded that any of the evidence proffered by the state would have required a determination, as a matter of law, that the parcel where defendant killed the deer bore indications of actual physical occupation and could not, therefore be “open and unclaimed land,” the court said.

Begay should have been allowed “to raise his treaty defense at trial,” the court ruled. “Accordingly, we reverse [Begay’s] conviction, and we remand for a new trial.”

There was no new trial.

On September 7, 2021, the prosecution dismissed the case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/20/2021
Last Updated: 9/20/2021
Most Serious Crime:Other
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2017
Race/Ethnicity:Native American
Age at the date of reported crime:49
Contributing Factors:
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No