Significant Indian Cases

Haystack Rock, Oregon Coast.  Courtesy of  Jeff Bank (DOJ/ENRD)

NRS | Native Americans

 1912 Heckman v. United States, 224 U.S. 413 (1912) (holding that the United States can invoke the Court's equity jurisdiction to revoke conveyances by Indian allottees where conveyances violated trust restrictions). 
 1942 Seminole Nation v. United States, 316 U.S. 286 (1942) (finding a breach of the Government's fiduciary trust obligation where the Government disbursed monies to the tribal government, instead of to individuals, knowing that the tribal government was "without integrity").
 1943 Creek Nation v. United States, 318 U.S. 629 (1943). The Creek Nation and the Seminole Nation brought an action against the United States contending that the Secretary was obligated to bring suit for all damages suffered by the Tribes for failure of railroads to pay sums owing under a 1902 Act for trespass and mileage taxes, for any breach of the treaty, and for rents and profits collected by the railroads. The Secretary was deemed not an insurer against loss to the Tribes. The Supreme Court noted the Tribes could have brought their own suits, and broad discretion is accorded the Secretary in any matter in which it chooses to institute litigation on behalf of a tribe. The Court held that the government's failure to bring a trespass suit against the railroads did not constitute a breach of trust.
 1955 Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, 348 U.S. 272 (1955). Aboriginal title (which arises from a tribe's actual, continuous and exclusive use and occupancy of a defined land area from "time immemorial"), when extinguished by the Federal Government, is not a compensable property right under the Fifth Amendment.  Because there was no recognized title (no Congressional recognition of the plaintiff Indians' right of permanent use and occupancy to the land at issue), the Court decided there was no right to compensation under the Fifth Amendment.
 1963 Sioux Tribe of Indians v. United States, 12 Ind. Cl. Comm. 541 (1963) (the Indian Claims Commission established procedures for litigating accounting claims.).
 1966 Klamath and Modoc Tribes v. United States, 174 Ct. Cl. 483 (1966). The Court of Claims held that it did not have jurisdiction to order the government to provide a "general accounting" of tribal trust funds or other trust property, unlike the Indian Claims Commission.  Rather, it could order the preparation of an accounting only as an “aid to judgment” to assist it in determining the amount of damages after it had found the government liable on a particular tribal claim.
 1968 Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation v. United States, 182 Ct. Cl. 543, 390 F. 2d 686 (1968). The Court devised the "substitution of assets" test for determining whether the government had committed a Fifth Amendment taking of tribal property - - namely, whether the Congress had made "a good faith effort to give the Indians the full value of the land and thus merely transmutes the property from land to money" in which case "there is no taking."
 1968 Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma v. United States, 390 U. S. 468 (1968) (holding that under the Indian Claims Commission Act (“ICCA”) a Tribe could recover interest on amounts which should have been collected for the sale of tribal lands ceded in trust to be sold for the Tribe's benefit, but had not been collected, were never in existence, and had not been deposited in the U.S. Treasury to the credit of the plaintiff Tribe and invested as required by the governing treaty).  
 1972 Gila River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community v. United States, 199 Ct. Cl. 586, 467 F.2d 1351 (1972) (holding that the proper measure of damages for the breach of lease where the government had not restored land to its original condition following the destruction of the Japanese American detention camp facilities on the Gila River reservation, was the diminution in the fair market value of these particular lands – not the cost of restoration advocated by the Tribe). 
 1973 Blackfeet Tribe of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation v. United States, 32 Ind. Cl. Comm. 65 (1973),reh'g denied, 34 Ind. Cl. Comm. 122 (1974).  This decision established the required parameters/scope of a "supplemental accounting."
 1975 United States v. Pueblo of San Ildefenso, 206 Ct. Cl. 649, 513 F.2d 1383 (1975) (holding that three Pueblos with a common culture and language and a long history of amicable relations could hold "joint aboriginal title" to a defined land area).
 1975 United States v. Mescalero Apache Tribe, 207 Ct. Cl. 369, 518 F. 2d 1309 (1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 911 (1976) (holding that no contract, treaty or agreement obligated the United States to pay interest on tribal Indian Money, [not] Proceeds of Labor (“IMPL”) funds during the period from 1883 to 1930, that the United States had not waived its sovereign immunity to suit for the recovery of interest on tribal IMPL funds, and that the ICCA did not authorize the payment of interest on these funds during the 1883-1930 period). 
 1975 Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Indians of Oklahoma v. United States, 206 Ct. Cl. 340, 512 F.2d 1390 (1975) (holding the statutory requirement that 4% simple interest be paid on tribal trust funds held in the Treasury represented “a floor rather than a ceiling” and that the Department of the Interior has a duty to maximize the return from its investment of tribal trust funds under the 1938 statute authorizing the Secretary to invest tribal trust funds, the original version of which was enacted in 1918).
 1978 Navajo Tribe of Indians v. United States, 218 Ct. Cl. 11, 586 F. 2d 192 (1978), cert. denied, 441 U.S. 944 (1979) (holding a "continuing wrong" for purposes of the Acontinuing wrongs” doctrine is "a wrongful course of governmental conduct [which] began before August 13, 1946 and continued thereafter," thus allowing the Claims Court to award damages for the period of time after August 13, 1946 during which the wrong continued).
 1979 Menominee Tribe of Indians v.  United States, 221 Ct. Cl. 506, 607 F.2d 1335 (1979) (holding that the Tribe's claim that the statute terminating the Tribe was itself a breach of trust was beyond the scope of the court's Indian Tucker Act and Tucker Act jurisdiction).
 1980 United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371 (1980) (holding that Congress did not attempt to give the Sioux the full 1877 value of the Black Hills area of the Great Sioux Reservation established by treaty in 1868 and the Tribe was owed just compensation for the taking).
 1980 United States v. Mitchell, 445 U.S. 535 (1980) (Mitchell I) (holding that Congress had not created a money-mandating trust duty in the General Allotment Act and thus, the United States was not required to pay money damages for any mismanagement of the commercial timber on the reservation). 
 1982 Gila River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community v. United States, 231 Ct. Cl. 193, 684 F.2d 852 (1982). The Tribe argued that the government had breached the "fair and honorable dealings" clause of the ICCA by failing to stop non-Indian upstream diversions of Gila River water beginning in 1868.  The Court held that the government had a duty to take legal action to stop these diversions, or, in the alternative, provide the Tribe with an alternate supply of water, but held plaintiff was entitled to only the amount of water needed to irrigate the acreage the Tribe had historically irrigated before the diversions began.  The Court rejected plaintiff's argument that damages be measured by the amount of water necessary to irrigate all the "practicably irrigable" acreage on the reservation.
 1983 United States v. Mitchell, 463 U.S. 206 (1983) (Mitchell II) (holding that even though the statute at issue did not explicitly grant a money damages remedy, the timber statutes and regulations evidenced comprehensive control and management by the government of the trust resource, such that the a fair interpretation of the statutes and regulations mandated compensation for their breach).     
 1983 Nevada v. United States, 463 U.S. 110 (1983) (holding that the government's simultaneous representation in a general stream adjudication of an Indian tribe and the non-Indians served by irrigation facilities constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation did not give rise to a breach of trust, because when Congress imposes on the government competing obligations to different groups, the "fastidious standards" of a private trustee do not apply to the government).
 1985 United States v. Dann, 470 U. S. 39 (1985) (holding that a full discharge of the United States of all claims and demands for purposes of the ICCA occurs when the monies appropriated by Congress to pay a final judgment in favor of a plaintiff tribe are deposited in a special account in the Treasury to the credit of the tribe).
 1985 Navajo Tribe of Indians v. United States, 9 Cl. Ct. 227 (1985), appeal dism'd (Fed. Cir. 1987). The Court rejected multiple "fair and honorable dealings" claims concerning the BIA's alleged mismanagement of the Tribe's mineral resources which was the first opinion on resource mismanagement claims filed under the ICCA.  This decision has provided guidance on tribal claims for mismanagement of natural resources filed under the Indian Tucker Act.
 1986 Navajo Tribe of Indians v. United States, 9 Cl. Ct. 336 (1986), appeal dism'd (Fed. Cir. 1987).  The Court rejected multiple "fair and honorable dealings" claims concerning alleged mismanagement of the Tribe's timber resources; this was the second significant opinion on resource mismanagement claims filed under the ICCA. The Court held that the standard of care owed by the government in managing timber resources was that of an "ordinary prudent man" operating under the same social, economic and technological restraints under which BIA had operated during the time at issue. This opinion has also offered guidance in Indian Tucker Act cases.
 1987 United States v. Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, 480 U.S. 700 (1987).  The Court held that the United States' navigational servitude precluded liability on the Tribe's claim that the McClellan-Kerr Project (construction of a navigable channel in the Arkansas Riverbed) effected a Fifth Amendment taking of the Tribe's mineral interests in the Riverbed.
 1987 Navajo Tribe of Indians v. State of New Mexico, 809 F.2d 1455, 1460-68 (10th Cir. 1987). The Tenth Circuit held that the district court lacked jurisdiction over the Tribe's claim that it was entitled to a declaratory judgment that land added to the Reservation in 1909 by Executive Order and returned to the public domain by Executive Order a few years later because this claim arose prior to August 13, 1946 and should have been brought under the ICCA.  The Circuit held that the ICCA was the "exclusive remedy" for tribal claims against the United States which arose prior to August 13, 1946.
 1987 White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona v. United States, 11 Cl Ct. 614 (1987), aff'd, 5 F. 3d 1506 (Fed Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 511 U.S. 1030 (1994). This was the third decision on tribal resource mismanagement claims adjudicated under the ICCA.  The Court narrowly construed the doctrine of "continuing wrongs."
 1987 Hodel v. Irving, 481 U.S. 704 (1987) (finding a fifth amendment taking without compensation where congress, in an attempt to resolve fractionated land holdings, ordered the escheat of fractional interests in real property). 
 1988 Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass'n, 485 U.S. 439 (1988) (holding that even though timber harvesting would have severe adverse effects on the Indians' practice of their religion, those effects were only incidental and did not constitute an attempt to coerce Native Americans to act in violation of their beliefs. The Court reasoned that government could not operate "if it were required to satisfy every citizen's religious needs and desires," and that the First Amendment did not give any one group veto power over public programs that did not actually prohibit the free exercise of religion).
 1991 Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma v. United States, 948 F.2d 635 (10th Cir. 1991). The Court rejected the Tribe's "fair and honorable dealings" claim concerning damage to its Arkansas Riverbed mineral interests allegedly caused by the McClellan-Kerr Project. It held that the Tribe had not proven the existence of the requisite "special relationship'' (for a "fair and honorable dealings" claim) or shown that in any Cherokee treaty with the United States had agreed to forego the exercise of its navigational servitude or restrict its use of the servitude.  
 1991 Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina v. United States, 982 F.2d 1564 (Fed. Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 501 U.S. 904 (1993) (holding that the six-year statute of limitations barred an argument that the government had to recover the tribal lands ceded to South Carolina in 1840 in violation of the Non-Intercourse Act, because the claim accrued in 1962 when the Catawba termination act had been enacted – not when the Supreme Court issued its 1986 Catawba opinion).
 1992 Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation v. United States, 964 F. 2d 1102 (Fed. Cir. 1992).  Plaintiff sought to recover damages for the water power values of tribal lands taken by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam under the "fair and honorable dealings" clause of the ICCA.  The Court rejected the government's argument that the navigational servitude was a bar to the claim and concluded that the government can still be held liable under "fair and honorable" dealings if its treatment of a plaintiff Indian tribe has been "less than fair or honorable."
 1992 White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona v. United States, 26 Cl. Ct. 446 (1992).  The Court established a test for the propriety of disbursements of tribal IMPL funds and a test for the propriety of expenditures of Tribal IIM funds (tribal funds held in local depositories).  Since the government had not been able to furnish copies of the cancelled checks underlying the $6.2 million of Tribal IIM disbursements at issue, the Court awarded the entire $6.2 million to the Tribe on its claim of improper Tribal IIM disbursements.
 1994 Apache Survival Coalition v. United States, 21 F.3d 895 (9th Cir. 1994).  This case involved a challenge under the National Historic Preservation Act (“NHPA”) to the Forest Service's issuance of a special use permit associated with the building of a telescope atop Mt. Graham. The United States prevailed and was found to have gone to lengths above and beyond what was required for consultation under the NHPA.
 1995 Na Iwi O Na Kupuna O Mokapu (Na Iwi) v. Dalton, 897 F. Supp. 1397 (D. Hawaii 1995).  Native Hawaiian group sued Secretary of the Navy under Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (“NAGPRA”) seeking, inter alia, to prevent certain scientific procedures from being used in the inventory that the Bishop Museum was conducting to fulfill the Navy's obligations under NAGPRA to conduct an inventory of remains recovered from the Marine Corps Base at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.  The Court held that the examination of the remains performed for purpose of accurately identifying cultural affiliation or ethnicity, which included viewing and measuring remains, is permissible under NAGPRA, did not constitute additional research or new studies and the results may be disclosed.
 1995 Short v. United States, 50 F.3d 994 (Fed. Cir. 1995).  Plaintiffs, Yurok Indians residing on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, sued to recover wrongful distributions of revenues from the management of the Reservation's commercial timber made to the members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe.  The Federal Circuit upheld the trial court's award of the amount of each wrongful annual  disbursement and interest thereon from the date of disbursement to the day of final judgment.  The Circuit agreed with the government’s argument that no statute existed which authorized the award of pre-judgment interest, but held that 25 U.S.C. §§ 161a, 161b and 162a authorized the "award of interest as part of the plaintiffs' damages."
 1995 Shoshone-Bannock Tribes v. Reno, 56 F.3d 1476 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (holding the United States has discretion (and is not in breach of trust) to not bring a water rights claim on behalf of one tribe, while at the same time deciding to prosecute a water rights claim on behalf of another tribe).
 1997 Bonnichsen v. United States Corps of Engineers, 969 F. Supp. 628 (D. Or. 1997).  This case was brought by eight scientists to demand custody and control of 9,300 year-old human remains as a matter of right. The Corps determined that the remains were those of a Native American and that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act applied. The Corps began the procedures for determining disposition under NAGPRA. Tribal claimants sought, but were denied intervention in the lawsuit. Ultimately, the Court ruled that the scientists were allowed to study the human remains.
 2003 United States v. White Mountain Apache Tribe, 537 U.S. 465 (2003) (The Tribe sued for money damages for the government's failure to maintain and preserve historical buildings located upon lands put in trust for the Tribe in 1960 by Congress.  The statute allowed the BIA to use these buildings for school and administrative purposes for as long as necessary and the BIA was still using many of them at the time of suit.  The United States moved to dismiss on Mitchell II grounds because the 1960 statute said nothing about a duty to preserve and maintain these buildings.  The Supreme Court held that because the government was using the  trust property, the duty to preserve these buildings could be fairly inferred from the United States' status as trustee and it relied upon the common law of trusts in support.  The Court also stressed that the government's exclusive control over the buildings it was using also supported the existence of this duty, consistent with Mitchell II.
 2003 United States v. Navajo Nation, 537 U.S. 488 (2003).  The Tribe argued that the Secretary had breached his trust duty to ensure a higher rate of return for the Tribe when, in the process of approving an amendment to a coal lease between the Tribe and Peabody Coal Co., the Secretary had not imposed a royalty rate higher than the 12.5% proposed by the lessee.  The Court held that neither the Indian Mineral Leasing Act ("IMLA") nor the implementing regulations (nor 25 U.S.C. § 399 nor the Indian Mineral Development Act, 25 U.S.C. §§ 2101, et seq.) contained any provision which "can fairly be interpreted as mandating money damages" for the breach of the alleged trust duty.
 2004 Shoshone Indian Tribe of the Wind River Reservation v. United States, 364 F.3d 1339 (Fed. Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 544 U.S. 973 (2005).  Beginning in Fiscal Year 1990, all appropriations acts for the Department of the Interior have contained a provision that the statute of limitations on claims concerning the management of Indian trust funds shall not begin to run until the government has furnished the owner of the funds with an accounting of such funds.  The Federal Circuit ruled that this tolling of the statute of limitations provision applied only to claims for the mismanagement of trust funds - - not to claims for mismanagement of non-monetary trust assets such as land or natural resources.  This ruling preserves our statute of limitations defense on claims for mismanagement of Indian lands and natural resources held in trust which are raised in nearly all of the pending tribal trust suits.  The second part of the decision holds, in effect, that a tribe can recover interest upon the award of damages for a resource mismanagement claim but characterizes interest as part of the overall damages.
 2009 United States v. Navajo Nation, 129 S.Ct. 1547 (2009).  In the Navajo case remanded by the Supreme Court in 2003, the Federal Circuit held that it could be fairly inferred from "a network of statutes and regulations" that the claim the Secretary had committed a breach of trust by failing to ensure a higher rate of return (under the coal lease) at issue was money- mandating.  The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the finding of a money-mandating duty may not be premised upon the government’s comprehensive control over the particular Indian trust property alone.  Instead, a specific duty or rights-creating statute or regulation must be identified for there to be a money-mandating claim.  Unless the Indian plaintiff has identified such a statute or regulation, “neither the Government’s ‘control’ over [the trust property] or common law trust principles matter.”  Thus, the Court greatly narrowed the reach of its 2003 White Mountain Apache opinion.


Updated May 12, 2015

Was this page helpful?

Was this page helpful?
Yes No