History of Indian Claims Litigation

An view of bison grazing on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. Courtesy of the National Archives, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1793 - 1999

NRS | Native Americans


Traditionally, a significant portion of the resources of the Natural Resources Section (and its predecessor, the General Litigation Section) have been devoted to defending the United States and/or particular federal agencies against suits brought by Indian tribes or individual Indians. Suits seeking the award of money damages have been filed in the United States Court of Federal Claims (and its predecessor courts) seeking additional compensation for lands ceded to the United States by treaty or agreement; asserting mismanagement of tribal trust funds; or mismanagement of tribal lands and/or natural resources. 

Many suits have been brought in Federal District Court to obtain declaratory and injunctive relief (e.g., relating to asserted title to/interests in land, alleged eligibility to conduct Class III Indian gaming pursuant to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, 25 U.S.C.§ 2701, et seq.,  presumed entitlement to have lands within an Indian reservation used by a federal agency declared "excess" and transferred to the Secretary of the Interior to be held in trust for the tribe which owns the reservation pursuant to Section 523 of the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, 40 U.S.C. § 523, and alleged eligibility to receive certain benefits and services under various federal Indian programs which are available to Indians because of their status as Indians).

For the period from December 17, 1953 to April 28, 1986, the Indian Claims Section bore much of the burden for defending the numerous suits for money damages – most involving historical claims arising on or before August 13, 1946 (the cutoff date for jurisdiction under the Indian Claims Commission Act), but also others involving claims accruing after August 13, 1946 filed under the Indian Tucker Act (28 U.S.C. §1505) and the Tucker Act (28 U.S.C. §1491).


Updated May 12, 2015

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