Heckman v. United States

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United States Supreme Court

224 U.S. 413

Heckman  v.  United States

 Argued: October 12 and 13, 1911. --- Decided: April 1, 1912

[Syllabus from pages 413-415 intentionally omitted]

The United States, by its Attorney General, upon the recommendation of the Secretary of the Interior, brought this suit in the circuit court of the United States for the eastern district of Oklahoma to cancel certain conveyances of allotted lands, made by members of the Cherokee Nation. Demurrer to the bill was sustained by the circuit court and the bill was dismissed. United States v. Allen, and similar cases, 171 Fed. 907. The judgment was reversed by the circuit court of appeals, and the trial court was directed to proceed with the suits in accordance with the views expressed in its opinion. 103 C. C. A. 1, 179 Fed. 13.

The government states in its brief that between July 14, 1908, and October 12, 1909, the United States brought 301 bills in equity against some 16,000 defendants, to cancel some 30,000 conveyances of allotted lands, made by as many or more grantors, members of the Five Civilized Tribes, upon the ground that the conveyances were in violation of existing restrictions upon the power of alienation. It is said that the selection and grouping of defendants in each case was determined by the substantial identity of the facts and propositions of law upon which the question of alienability of the lands depended.

Forty-six bills were filed to cancel 3,715 conveyances of lands of Cherokee Indians.

This particular suit deals with conveyances by Cherokee allottees of the full blood of lands allotted subsequent to the act of April 26, 1906, 34 Stat. at L. 137, chap. 1876. The grantors were not made parties. There are involved a number of separate conveyances to distinct grantees, parties defendant, two of whom prosecute this appeal from the judgment of the circuit court of appeals.

The bill alleges that under the treaties between the United States and the Cherokee tribe of Indians and its members, the United States granted to the Cherokee tribe certain lands in the Indian territory, now the eastern district of Oklahoma, and obligated itself by the terms of these treaties and of its laws to protect the Cherokee tribe in the enjoyment of the lands granted; that, according to the terms of said treaties and laws, and of the patent to the lands, the Cherokee tribe and every member thereof have at all times been and now are without power to dispose of any interest in the lands without the authority of the United States, or otherwise than in the manner it prescribed; that the government of the United States, by reason of the helpless and dependent character of the Indian tribes, and of their several members, is the guardian and has exclusive control of their property, by virtue of which there is imposed upon the United States the duty to do whatever may be necessary for their guidance, welfare, and protection; that the Cherokee tribe has always been and is now treated as a tribe of Indians by the government of the United States and its several branches; that this tribe is now under the care of an Indian agent duly appointed under the laws of Congress, and large sums are still appropriated by Congress for the benefit and protection of the tribe and of its individual members, and for the maintenance of schools; and that under the laws of Congress the government of the United States still has a large sum of money in its possession belonging to the tribe, and there still remains unallotted a large area of tribal lands, the common property of the tribe.

It is further alleged that in the exercise of its powers to regulate and govern the affairs of the Cherokee tribe of Indians and its members, having in view their welfare and the carrying out of its treaty obligations, Congress, by the act approved July 1, 1902 (32 Stat. at L. 716, chap. 1375), provided that the lands belonging to the Cherokee tribe in the present state of Oklahoma should be allotted in severalty among its members, but deeming the Indians to be untutored and improvident, and still requiring the protection and supervision of the general government, it was provided by this act that the portion of the lands so allotted as homesteads should be inalienable; and further, that the allotted lands other than homesteads should be alienable only in five years after the issuance of pattent to the allottee, and that, in accordance with its provisions, the act of Congress was duly ratified by the Cherokee people on the 7th day of August, 1902.

The bill describes certain conveyances of lands situated in the eastern district of Oklahoma, made by Cherokee Indians to the defendants, respectively, with particulars as to the lands embraced in the conveyances, the consideration, the dates of execution, acknowledgment, and recording, and also the dates of the allotment certificates and of the recording of allotment deeds. The dates of the conveyances were between November 19, 1904, and May 7, 1908, and of the allotment certificates between April 30, 1906, and May 4, 1908. It is alleged that each of the tracts of land described was land of the Cherokee tribe which had been allotted to full-blood Indians of that tribe; that is, to those mentioned as grantors in the conveyances specified; that they were so allotted as to be subject to restrictions upon their alienation and encumbrance, and were so subject at the date of the execution and recording of the deeds described, which restrictions have never been removed; that the facts concerning the allotments and restrictions were matters of public record and notorious, and that the restrictions were imposed by public laws of the United States of which the defendants had knowledge, and by which they were put upon inquiry and notice as to all matters concerning the condition of the particular tracts of land mentioned in the bill; that the deeds had been secured by the defendants in wilful violation of law and of the duty which rested upon this Nation and every member thereof, and for the purpose of unlawfully encumbering the allotted lands; and that by causing the deeds to be recorded the defendants had unlawfully obtained an apparent title or interest of record in the lands described in defiance of said agency supervision, and in open violation and contempt of the laws of the United States, to the irreparable injury of the Indians, and in direct interference with the supervision and control, policy, and duty of the government of the United States in that behalf.

It is also averred on information and belief that the defendants have unlawfully secured from members of the Cherokee tribe other deeds, conveyances, mortgages, powers of attorney, and contracts for and about their allotments, which the Indians and freedmen were without authority to make; that as these have not been recorded, the complainant is unable to give a minute and correct description without the discovery prayed for; that the defendants are continuing to induce the members of the Cherokee tribe named in the bill, and other members of said tribe, to execute deeds and instruments for and about their allotments, and threaten that they will continue such unlawful acts; that this unlawful conduct will greatly harass the United States in the discharge of its duties and in the administration of its policy in relation to these Indians, and compel it to bring many suits in order to annul the deeds and instruments which the defendants have taken and are taking, as alleged; that in addition to the instruments specified in the bill, upward of four thousand instruments of a similar nature, purporting to convey or to encumber the title to lands located within the eastern district of Oklahoma, and duly allotted to members of the Five Civilized Tribes, or belonging to said tribes, have been executed and placed on record by the defendants herein and other persons and corporations, in contravention of the treaties entered into between the United States and the several Indian tribes, and the laws of the United States; and that unless the United States shall be permitted to join in its bills numerous defendants, against each of whom it has a like cause of action, and against each of whom it seeks the same relief, and whose pretended claims are based upon similar facts, and involve precisely the same questions of law, it will be driven to the necessity of bringing a great number of distinct and separate suits, and that it will be practically impossible for the United States to prosecute, and for the courts to adjudicate and dispose of, so large a number of separate and distinct suits within any reasonable length of time.

The bill prays that the specified conveyances be declared void, and that the title to the lands described be decreed to be in the allottees or their heirs, subject to the terms, conditions, and limitations contained in the treaties, agreements, and laws of the United States. Discovery of all claims to lands allotted to any of the Cherokee tribe, or to unallotted lands of the tribe, and the surrender of instruments for cancelation, are sought; and it is also prayed that all defendants in possession, or claiming possession, be ordered to vacate or to cease making such claims, and that the United States have such other and further relief as may be proper.

The objections to the sufficiency of the bill as set forth in the demurrers are thus summarized in the appellants' brief:

(1) That the United States has no capacity to maintain the suit.

(2) That the bill is wholly without equity.

(3) That there is a defect of parties.

(4) That there is a misjoinder of alleged causes of action.

(5) That the bill is multifarious.

The appeal from the judgment of the circuit court of appeals, which reversed the judgment of the circuit court, sustaining the demurrers, is taken under § 3 of the act of June 25, 1910, chap. 408 (36 Stat. at L. 837).

Messrs. J. C. Stone, Robert J. Boone, and S. T. Bledsoe for appellants.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 420-425 intentionally omitted]

Solicitor General Lehmann, A. N. Frost, and Harlow A. Leekley for appellee.

Mr. Justice Hughes, after making the above statement, delivered the opinion of the court:


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).