Choctaw Nation v. Oklahoma/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

397 U.S. 620

Choctaw Nation  v.  Oklahoma

 Argued: March 5, 1970. --- Decided: April 27, 1970

This case involves a dispute over the title to land underlying the navigable portion of parts of the Arkansas River in the State of Oklahoma. As a practical matter, what is at stake is the ownership of the minerals beneath the river bed and of the dry land created by navigation projects that are narrowing and deepening the river channel.

In December 1966, petitioner Cherokee Nation brought suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma against the State of Oklahoma and various corporations to which the State had leased oil and gas and other mineral rights. In its complaint, the Cherokee Nation sought both to recover the royalties derived from the leases and to prevent future interference with its property rights, claiming that it had been since 1835 the absolute fee owner of certain land below the mean high water level of the Arkansas River. Subsequently, petitioners Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations sought and were granted leave to intervene in the case in order to present their claims that part of the river bed belongs to them.

After pre-trial proceedings in the District Court, a judgment on the pleadings was entered against petitioners and in favor of the State. The District Court held that land grants made to petitioners by the United States conveyed no rights to the bed of the navigable portion of the Arkansas River. The court thus held that title to the river bed remained in the United States until 1907, when it passed to the State upon Oklahoma's admission to the Union. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court. 402 F.2d 739 (1968). We granted certiorari, Choctaw Nation v. Oklahoma, 394 U.S. 972, 89 S.Ct. 1455, 22 L.Ed.2d 972 (1969), to consider petitioners' claims that they received title to the land in question by treaties with the United States in 1830 and 1835.

* At the outset, we note that these cases require us to pass upon the effect of treaties that were entered into nearly a century and a half ago. As background, it is necessary briefly to relate the circumstances by which petitioners received large grants of land by treaty from the United States.

The history behind these treaties goes back at least to the period immediately after the Revolutionary War and prior to the adoption of the Constitution-a time when petitioners and other Indian Nations occupied much of what are today the southern and southeastern parts of the United States. In 1785, in the Treaty of Hopewell, November 28, 1785, 7 Stat. 18, the United States entered into a treaty of peace and friendship with the Cherokee Indians which established the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation and in which the Indians acknowledged themselves to be under the protection of the United States. The next year, a similar treaty was concluded between the Choctaws and the United States. Treaty of Hopewell, January 3, 1786, 7 Stat. 21.

In following years, the United States entered into a number of additional treaties with both the Cherokees and Choctaws. [1] By means of these treaties, the United States purchased large areas of land from the Indians to provide room for the increasing numbers of new settlers who were encroaching upon Indian lands during their westward migrations. Although the Indians were not considered to own the fee title to the land on which they lived, they did have the right to the exclusive use and occupancy of the land-a right that could be ceded only to the United States. [2] Moreover, the Indians continued to live on the land not ceded under their own laws and way of life, and their rights to those lands were 'solemnly' guaranteed by the United States. Treaty of Holston, July 2, 1791, 7 Stat. 39, 40; see Indian Intercourse Act of 1802, 2 Stat. 139.

Even while it was making this solemn guarantee, however, the United States adopted a policy aimed at completely extinguishing these Indian Nations' rights to their native lands. The United States had acquired a large western territory in 1803 by the Louisiana Purchase, and it was soon proposed that the Indians be relocated on new lands west of the Mississippi. [3] For a time, it seemed that the westward removal of the Indians might be readily accomplished. In the Treaty of July 8, 1817, 7 Stat. 156, the Cherokee Nation agreed to trade part of its lands in Georgia for a large amount of land in the Arkansas Territory. See also Treaty of February 27, 1819, 7 Stat. 195. Thereafter, a number of the Cherokees left their eastern lands and traveled west. Three years later, in the Treaty of Doak's Stand, October 18, 1820, 7 Stat. 210, the Choctaw Nation agreed to exchange approximately half of its remaining Mississippi lands for a large tract of land in the Arkansas Territory and an even larger one farther west.

Before the United States could relocate the Indians on these new lands, however, at least part of the land that had been set aside in the Arkansas Territory was already settled. It was apparent that the westward removal had not been aimed far enough west to escape the new nation's expansion. By the Treaty of January 20, 1825, 7 Stat. 234, the Choctaws were persuaded to cede back to the United States the eastern portion of the land given them in the Treaty of Doak's Stand. Similarly, the Cherokees who had voluntarily moved to Arkansas agreed to move again-farther west to a new tract of land, 'a permanent home, and which shall, under the most solemn guarantee of the United States, be, and remain, theirs forever.' Treaty of May 6, 1828, 7 Stat. 311.

The prospect of the voluntary removal of the Indians to land west of the Mississippi soon disappreared. For the most part, the Choctaws and the Cherokees who had not already left their eastern lands refused to give up the land that had long been their home. The abortive attempt to set aside Arkansas Territory land for the Indians justifiably made many of them doubt that the United States would protect them in their new lands. But at the same time the Indians were deciding to remain, the new settlers' expansion and desire for their lands increased. In Georgia, the state legislature, tired of waiting for the United States to fulfill its promise to extinguish Indian rights to Georgia lands, [4] asserted jurisdiction over the Cherokees and prepared to distribute the Cherokee lands. Mississippi soon followed suit, abolishing tribal government and extending its laws to Choctaw territory.

A clash between the obligation of the United States to protect Indian property rights on the one hand and the policy of forcing their relinquishment on the other was inevitable. With the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, 4 Stat. 411, it became apparent that policy, not obligation, would prevail. In spite of the promises to protect the Indians' land and sovereignty, it was clear that the United States was unable or unwilling to prevent the States and their citizens from violating Indian rights.

Thus faced with the prospect of losing both their lands and way of life, the Choctaws agreed in 1830 to leave Mississippi and to move to new lands west of the Arkansas Territory. As a guarantee that they would not again be forced to move, the United States promised to convey the land to the Choctaw Nation in fee simple 'to inure to them while they shall exist as a nation and live on it.' In addition, the United States pledged itself to secure to the Choctaws the 'jurisdiction and government of all the persons and property that may be within their limits west, so that no Territory or State shall ever have a right to pass laws for the government of the Choctaw Nation * * * and that no part of the land granted them shall ever be embraced in any Territory or State.' Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, Sept. 27, 1830, 7 Stat. 333-334.

The Cherokees were at first determined to retain the Georgia lands on which they had by that time settled down, establishing farms and towns. [5] However, after a time, they, too, were forced to leave. In the Treaty of New Echota, December 29, 1835, 7 Stat. 478, the Cherokees who had remained in the East agreed to leave their lands and to join the Cherokees who had already moved west of the Mississippi. Once again, the United States assured the Indians that they would not be forced to move from their new lands: a patent would issue to convey those lands in fee simple, and they would never be embraced within the boundaries of any State or Territory.

The United States thus succeeded in its efforts to remove the Indians from their eastern lands. In exchange, by the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek with the Choctaws in 1830 and the Treaty of New Echota with the Cherokees in 1835, the United States granted a vast area of its western territory to the two Indian Nations. The land thus granted to the Choctaws encompassed what is today approximately the southern third of the State of Oklahoma; to the north, the Cherokees received title to a tract of land in the eastern part of the remainder of the State with a perpetual outlet to and other rights in land farther west.

Although by later treaties other Indian tribes were settled on parts of the land originally included in these grants, and the Chickasaw Nation was granted an undividued one-fourth interest in the remainder of the Choctaw land, see Treaty of January 17, 1837, 11 Stat. 573; Treaty of June 22, 1855, 11 Stat. 611, the fee simple title to a vast tract of land continued to be held by the petitioner Indian Nations for well over half a century.

Then, again due in large part to the pressure of settlers who were encroaching on Indian lands, [6] Congress acted to change the arrangement. By § 16 of the Act of March 3, 1893, 27 Stat. 645, a commission was created to negotiate with the Indian tribes that had been located in Oklahoma on the allotment of land to their indiviual members in preparation for the final dissolution of the tribes. Thereafter, the Indians-including the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees-agreed to the allotment of their lands and the termination of tribal affairs. See Act of June 28, 1898, 30 Stat. 495; Act of July 1, 1902, 32 Stat. 716. Finally, Congress provided for the disposition of all petitioners' lands with the provision that any remaining tribal property 'be held in trust by the United States for the use and benefit of the Indians.' Act of April 26, 1906, § 27, 34 Stat. 148. The way was thus paved for Oklahoma's admission to the Union 'on an equal footing with the original States,' conditioned on its disclaimer of all right and title to lands 'owned or held by any Indian, tribe, or nation.' Act of June 16, 1906, §§ 3, 4, 34 Stat. 270, 271.

According to petitioners, they received title to the bed of the Arkansas River by treaty and patent from the United States. Because the land was not individually allotted or otherwise disposed of pursuant to the 1906 Act, title remained in petitioners or passed to the United States to be held in trust for them. The State, on the other hand, claims that petitioners never received title to the land. The courts below held in favor of the State, thus disposing of the case since it was undisputed that if title remained in the United States, it passed to Oklahoma upon admission to the Union as an incident of statehood. The sole question for review then is whether the treaty grants from the United States conveyed title to the bed of the Arkansas River to the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations.

We more then to the construction and effect of the treaties between petitioners and the United States. At the outset, the State argues that the bed of the Arkansas River was not included in the grants to petitioners even by the accepted standards of ordinary conveyancing since to a skilled draftsman 'the land descriptions in the treaties, standing alone, actually exclude the river beds.'

Part of the Arkansas River here in question is surrounded on both sides by land granted to the Cherokees, and with regard to it the argument is at the least strained. There is no explicit exclusion of the river bed in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota; in fact, there is no reference at all to the river from 'a point where a stone is placed opposite the east or lower bank of Grand river at its junction with the Arkansas' to its junction with the Canadian. See 7 Stat. 480. As we read the Cherokee treaties and the patent issued thereunder by the President, the Cherokee Nation was granted one undivided tract of land described merely by exterior metes and bounds. That portion of the Arkansas River between its junctions with the Grand and Canadian Rivers lies completely within those metes and bounds, and all of the land inside those boundaries including the river bed seems clearly encompassed within the grant.

Below its confluence with the Canadian, the Arkansas River forms the boundary between the land granted to the Cherokees to the north and the Choctaws to the south, and the treaties do explicitly refer to this portion of the river. In the Treaty of Doak's Stand in 1820, petitioner Choctaw Nation was granted all the land within the following boundaries:

'Beginning on the Arkansas River, where the lower boundary line of the Cherokees strikes the same; thence up the Arkansas to the Canadian Fork, and up the same to its source; thence due South to the Red River; thence down Red River, three miles below the mouth of Little River, which empties itself into Red River on the north side; thence a direct line to the beginning.' 7 Stat. 211. (Emphasis added.)

Ten years later, this grant was superseded by the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which 'varied the description a little, and provided for a special patent,' Fleming v. McCurtain, 215 U.S. 56, 59, 30 S.Ct. 16, 17, 54 L.Ed. 88 (1909):

'beginning near Fort Smith where the Arkansas boundary crosses the Arkansas River, running thence to the source of the Canadian fork; if in the limits of the United States, or to those limits; thence due south to Red River, and down Red River to the west boundary of the Territory of Arkansas; thence north along that line to the beginning.' 7 Stat. 333. (Emphasis added.)

And the patent issued to the Choctaw Nation in 1842 by President Tyler merely repeated the language of this latter treaty.

The Choctaw treaties preceded any grant to the Cherokee Nation; and, under them, petitioners Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations claim the entire bed of the Arkansas River between its confluence with the Canadian River and the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. The Cherokees, however, also have a claim to this part of the river, based on the language setting out the southern border of the land granted them in the Treaty of New Echota: From a point on the Canadian River,

'thence down the Canadian to the Arkansas; thence down the Arkansas to that point on the Arkansas where the eastern Choctaw boundary strikes said river * * *.' 7 Stat. 480. (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, they point to the patent issued them by President Van Buren in 1838, which described the southern boundary of their lands as follows:

'down the Canadian river on its north bank to its junction with Arkansas river; thence down the main channel of Arkansas river to the western boundary of the State of Arkansas at the northern extremity of the eastern boundary of the lands of the Choctaws on the south bank of Arkansas river. * * *' (Emphasis added.

According to the Cherokee Nation, the United States thereby conveyed to it the north half of the Arkansas River from its junction with the Canadian to the eastern Oklahoma border. Petitioners thus are in disagreement about the effect of the words in the treaties and patents with regard to this lower portion of the river. [7]

That disagreement, however, does nothing to make convincing even the State's argument that this part of the river bed was excluded from the grants as a matter of conveyancing law. About all that can be said about the treaties from the standpoint of a skilled draftsman is that they were not skillfully drafted. More important is the fact that these treaties are not to be considered as exercises in ordinary conveyancing. The Indian Nations did not seek out the United States and agree upon an exchange of lands in an arm's-length transaction. Rather, treaties were imposed upon them and they had no choice but to consent. As a consequence, this Court has often held that treaties with the Indians must be interpreted as they would have understood them, see, e.g., Jones v. Meehan, 175 U.S. 1, 11, 20 S.Ct. 1, 5, 44 L.Ed. 49 (1899), and any doubtful expressions in them should be resolved in the Indians' favor. See Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States, 248 U.S. 78, 89, 39 S.Ct. 40, 41, 42, 63 L.Ed. 138 (1918). Indeed, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek itself provides that 'in the construction of this Treaty wherever well founded doubt shall arise, it shall be construed most favourably towards the Choctaws.' 7 Stat. 336.

Applying these principles here, we conclude that the entire Arkansas River below its confluence with the Grand River was within the metes and bounds of the treaty grants to petitioners. The State argues that the treaty terms 'up the Arkansas' and 'down the Arkansas' should be read to mean 'along the bank of the Arkansas River.' However, the United States was competent to say the 'north side' or 'bank' of the Arkansas River when that was what it meant, as it had in the 1817 grant to the Cherokees in the Arkansas Territory. See 7 Stat. 158. Even more damaging to the State's argument is the contemporaneous interpretation of the treaty language by the President as reflected in the specific language of the Cherokee patent, 'down the Canadian river on its north bank to its junction with Arkansas river; thence down the main channel of Arkansas river.' [8] (Emphasis added.) According to the State, the italicized part of this description should be read to mean 'down the north bank of the main branch of the Arkansas River.' However, not only does this reading itself seem to include part of the river bed-that underlying the 'secondary' branches-but it also conflicts with this Court's interpretation of the term in Brewer-Elliott Oil & Gas Co. v. United States, 260 U.S. 77, 43 S.Ct. 60, 67 L.Ed. 140 (1922).

The facts involved in Brewer-Elliott were essentially similar to those of the present cases. There the United States had established a reservation for the Osage Indians which was bounded on one side by 'the main channel of the Arkansas river.' 260 U.S. at 81, 43 S.Ct., at 62. The United States brought suit to establish the Indians' right to the river bed and the oil reserves beneath it, and the State of Oklahoma intervened to claim that the river bed had passed to it at statehood. The case came here after the Court of Appeals had held that 'whether the river was navigable or nonnavigable, the United States, as the owner of the territory through which the Arkansas flowed before statehood, had the right to dispose of the river bed, and had done so, to the Osages.' Id., at 80, 43 S.Ct. at 61. This Court held that in the region in question the Arkansas River was non-navigable and that 'the title of the Osages as granted certainly included the bed of the river as far as the main channel, because the words of the grant expressly carry the title to that line.' Id., at 87, 43 S.Ct. at 64. (Emphasis added.) The question whether it would have been beyond the power of the United States to make the grant had the river been navigable was reserved for future decision.

In the present cases, there is no question that the Arkansas River is navigable below its junction with the Grand River. [9] However, we do not understand the State to argue the question reserved in Brewer-Elliott. Indeed, it seems well settled that the United States can dispose of lands underlying navigable waters just as it can dispose of other public lands. See Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. 1, 47-48, 14 S.Ct. 548, 565-566, 38 L.Ed. 331 (1894). Rather, the question is whether the United States intended to convey title to the river bed to petitioners. See Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States, supra, at 87, 39 S.Ct. at 41; Moore v. United States, 157 F.2d 760, 763 (C.A.9th Cir. 1946); cf. Donnelly v. United States, 228 U.S. 243, 259, 33 S.Ct. 449, 453 454, 57 L.Ed. 820 (1913).

Turning then to that question, we think it clear, as did the Court of Appeals, that the parties to the treaties and patents did not pause specifically to provide for the ownership of the river bed. According to the State-even if the river bed was within the bounds of the grants to petitioners-we need look no further because 'disposals by the United States during the territorial period are not lightly to be inferred, and should not be regarded as intended unless the intention was definitely declared or otherwise made very plain.' United States v. Holt State Bank, 270 U.S. 49, 55, 46 S.Ct. 197, 199, 70 L.Ed. 465 (1926). Even were we limited to the treaties and patents alone, the most specific language of those instruments is identical to that we said 'expressly' conveyed title to the river bed in Brewer-Elliott. However, nothing in the Holt State Bank case or in the policy underlying its rule of construction, (see Shively v. Bowlby, supra, at 49-50, 14 S.Ct., at 566) requires that courts blind themselves to the circumstances of the grant in determining the intent of the grantor. Indeed, the court in Holt State Bank itself examined the circumstances in detail and concluded 'the reservation was not intended to effect such a disposal.' 270 U.S., at 58, 46 S.Ct. at 200. We think that the similar conclusion of the Court of Appeals in this case was in error, given the circumstances of the treaty grants and the countervailing rule of construction that well-founded doubt should be resolved in petitioners' favor.

Together, petitioners were granted fee simple title to a vast tract of land through which the Arkansas River winds its course. The natural inference from those grants is that all the land within their metes and bounds was conveyed, including the banks and bed of rivers. To the extent that the documents speak to the question, they are consistent with and tend to confirm this natural reading. Certainly there was no express exclusion of the bed of the Arkansas River by the United States as there was to other land within the grants.

As a practical matter, reservation of the river bed would have meant that petitioners were not entitled to enter upon and take sand and gravel or other minerals from the shallow parts of the river or islands formed when the water was low. In many respects however, the Indians were promised virtually complete sovereignty over their new lands. See Atlantic & Pacific R. Co. v. Mingus, 165 U.S. 413, 435-436, 17 S.Ct. 348, 354, 41 L.Ed. 770 (1897). We do not believe that petitioners would have considered that they could have been precluded from exercising these basic ownership rights to the river bed, and we think it very unlikely that the United States intended otherwise. Nor do we believe that the United States would intend that it rather than petitioners have title to the dry bed left from avulsive changes of the river's course, which as the District Court noted are common in this area. Indeed, the United States seems to have had no present interest in retaining title to the river bed at all; it had all it was concerned with in its navigational easement via the constitutional power over commerce. Cf. Pollard v. Hagan, 3 How. 212, 229, 11 L.Ed. 565 (1845).

Finally, it must be remembered that the United States accompanied its grants to petitioners with the promise that 'no part of the land granted to them shall ever be embraced in any Territory or State.' In light of this promise, it is only by the purest of legal fictions that there can be found even a semblance of an understanding (on which Oklahoma necessarily places its principal reliance), that the United States retained title in order to grant it to some future State.

We thus conclude that the United States intended to and did convey title to the bed of the Arkansas River below its junction with the Grand River within in the present State of Oklahoma in the grants it made to petitioners. The judgments of the Court of Appeals are therefore reversed, and the cases are remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. It is so ordered.

Judgment of Court of Appeals reversed and case remanded.

Mr. Justice HARLAN took no part in the consideration or decision of these cases.


^1  E.g., Treaty of October 2, 1798, 7 Stat. 62; Treaty of December 17, 1801, 7 Stat. 66; Treaty of October 25, 1805, 7 Stat. 93.

^2  See Johnson v. McIntosh, 8 Wheat. 543, 5 L.Ed. 681 (1823); Fletcher v. Peck, 6 Cranch 87, 142-143, 3 L.Ed. 162 (1810).

^3  See Act of March 26, 1804, § 15, 2 Stat. 289. In 1802, even before it had acquired new lands west of the Mississippi, 'the United States agreed to extinguish Indian title within the limits of the States as soon as it could be done 'peaceable (sic) and on reasonable terms." U.S. Interior Dept., Federal Indian Law 180-181 (1958).

^4  See n. 3, supra.

^5  The efforts on behalf of the Cherokees remaining in Georgia included two cases that were brought to this court, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 5 Pet. 1, 8 L.Ed. 25 (1831), and Worcester v. Georgia, 6 Pet. 515, 8 L.Ed. 483 (1832). For a recent account of these and other Cherokee efforts, see Burke, The Cherokee Cases: A Study in Law, politics, and Morality, 21 Stan.L.Rev. 500 (1969). See generally, Federal Indian Law, supra, n. 3, at 180-200.

^6  See Marlin v. Lewallen, 276 U.S. 58, 61, 48 S.Ct. 248, 249, 72 L.Ed. 467 (1928); Choate v. Trapp, 224 U.S. 665, 667-668, 32 S.Ct. 565, 566, 56 L.Ed. 941 (1912).

^7  The courts below did not resolve the dispute between petitioners, and we likewise do not pass on that question.

^8  This construction of the treaty term 'down the Arkansas' indicates that at the minimum the boundary of the Choctaws was also the middle of the main channel. Congress was accustomed to using the terms 'up' or 'down' the river when designating a navigable river as the boundary between States, see, e.g., Act of March 2, 1819, § 2, 3 Stat. 490 (Alabama); Act of February 20, 1811, § 1, 2 Stat. 641 (Louisiana); and, when it did so, the boundary was set as the middle of the main channel. See Arkansas v. Mississippi, 250 U.S. 39, 39 S.Ct. 422, 63 L.Ed. 832 (1919); Iowa v. Illinois, 147 U.S. 1, 13 S.Ct. 239, 37 L.Ed. 55 (1893).

Given this congressional usage, it seems natural for the President, on whose behalf the treaties had been negotiated, to have given the same interpretation to identical language in the analogous situation involving the boundary between petitioners Choctaw and Cherokee Nations, which had long been considered sovereign entities. In fact, this Court recognized the analogy in Barney v. Keokuk, 94 U.S. 324, 337, 24 L.Ed. 224 (1877), a case involving a grant bounded by the Mississippi River, when it quoted with apparent approval the following language from Haight v. City of Keokuk 4 Iowa 199, 213 (1856): 'The grant to the (Indians) was to them as persons, and not as a political body. The political jurisdiction remained in the United States. Had the grant been to them as a political society, it would have been a question of boundary between nations or states, and then the line would have been the medium filum aguae, as it is now between Iowa and Illinois.' The grants to petitioners were undoubtedly to them as 'a political society,' and any 'well founded doubt' regarding the boundaries must, of course, be resolved in their favor.

^9  The District Court took judicial notice of the navigability at all relevant times of those portions of the Arkansas River in question, and that issue is not in dispute here. In the Brewer-Elliott case, this Court affirmed the finding of the District Court that 'the head of navigation is and was the mouth of the Grand river.' 260 U.S., at 86, 43 S.Ct., at 64.

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).