Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

187 U.S. 553

Lone Wolf  v.  Hitchcock

 Argued: October 23, 1902. --- Decided: January 5, 1903


By the sixth article of the first of the two treaties referred to in the preceding statement, proclaimed on August 25, 1868 (15 Stat. at L. 581), it was provided that heads of families of the tribes affected by the treaty might select, within the reservation, a tract of land of not exceeding 320 acres in extent, which should thereafter cease to be held in common, and should be for the exclusive possession of the Indian making the selection so long as he or his family might continue to cultivate the land. The twelfth article reads as follows:

'Article 12. No treaty for the cession of any portion or part of the reservation herein in described, which may be held in common, shall be of any validity or force, as against the said Indians, unless executed and signed by at least three fourths of all the adult male Indians occupying the same, and no cession by the tribe shall be understood or construed in such manner as to deprive, without his consent, any individual member of the tribe of his rights to any tract of land selected by him as provided in article 3 [6] of this treaty.'

The appellants base their right to relief on the proposition that by the effect of the article just quoted the confederated tribes of Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches were vested with an interest in the lands held in common within the reservation, which interest could not be devested by Congress in any other mode than that specified in the said twelfth article, and that as a result of the said stipulation the interest of the Indians in the common lands fell within the protection of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and such interest-indirectly at least-came under the control of the judicial branch of the government. We are unable to yield our assent to this view.

The contention in effect ignores the status of the contracting Indians and the relation of dependency they bore and continue to bear towards the government of the United States. To uphold the claim would be to adjudge that the indirect operation of the treaty was to materially limit and qualify the controlling authority of Congress in respect to the care and protection of the Indians, and to deprive Congress, in a possible emergency, when the necessity might be urgent for a partition and disposal of the tribal lands, of all power to act, if the assent of the Indians could not be obtained.

Now, it is true that in decisions of this court, the Indian right of occupancy of tribal lands, whether declared in a treaty or otherwise created, has been stated to be sacred, or, as sometimes expressed, as sacred as the fee of the United States in the same lands. Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823) 8 Wheat. 543, 574, 5 L. ed. 681, 688; Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) 5 Pet. 1, 48, 8 L. ed. 25, 42; Worcester v. Georgia (1832) 6 Pet. 515, 581, 8 L. ed. 483, 508; United States v. Cook (1873) 19 Wall. 591, 592, 22 L. ed. 210, 211; Leavenworth, L. & G. R. Co. v. United States (1875) 92 U.S. 733, 755, 23 L. ed. 634, 643; Beecher v. Wetherby (1877) 95 U.S. 525, 24 L. ed. 441. But in none of these cases was there involved a controversy between Indians and the government respecting the power of Congress to administer the property of the Indians. The questions considered in the cases referred to, which either directly or indirectly had relation to the nature of the property rights of the Indians, concerned the character and extent of such rights as respected states or individuals. In one of the cited cases it was clearly pointed out that Congress possessed a paramount power over the property of the Indians, by reason of its exercise of guardianship over their interests, and that such authority might be implied, even though opposed to the strict letter of a treaty with the Indians. Thus, in Beecher v. Weherby, 95 U.S. 525, 24 L. ed. 441, discussing the claim that there had been a prior reservation of land by treaty to the use of a certain tribe of Indians, the court said (p. 525, L. ed. p. 441):

'But the right which the Indians held was only that of occupancy. The fee was in the United States, subject to that right, and could be transferred by them whenever they chose. The grantee, it is true, would take only the naked fee, and could not disturb the occupancy of the Indians; that occupancy could only be interfered with or determined by the United States. It is to be presumed that in this matter the United States would be governed by such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people in their treatment of an ignorant and dependent race. Be that is it may, the propriety or justice of their action towards the Indians with respect to their lands is a question of governmental policy, and is not a matter open to discussion in a controversy between third parties, neither of whom derives title from the Indians.'

Plenary authority over the tribal relations of the Indians has been exercised by Congress from the beginning, and the power has always been deemed a political one, not subject to be controlled by the judicial department of the government. Until the year 1871 the policy was pursued of dealing with the Indian tribes by means of treaties, and, of course, a moral obligation rested upon Congress to act in good faith in performing the stipulations entered into on its behalf. But, as with treaties made with foreign nations (Chinese Exclusion Case, 130 U.S. 581, 600, 32 L. ed. 1068, 1073, 9 Sup. Ct. Rep. 623), the legislative power might pass laws in conflict with treaties made with the Indians. Thomas v. Gay, 169 U.S. 264, 270, 42 L. ed. 740, 743, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 340; Ward v. Race Horse, 163 U.S. 504, 511, 41 L. ed. 244, 246, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1076; Spalding v. Chandler, 160 U.S. 394, 405, 40 L. ed. 469, 473, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 360; Missouri, K. & T. R. Co. v. Roberts, 152 U.S. 114, 117, 38 L. ed. 377, 379, 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 496; Cherokee Tobacco, 11 Wall. 616, Sub nom. 207 Half Pound papers of Smoking Tobacco v. United States, 20 L. ed. 227.

The power exists to abrogate the provisions of an Indian treaty, though presumably such power will be exercised only when circumstances arise which will not only justify the government in disregarding the stipulations of the treaty, but may demand, in the interest of the country and the Indians themselves, that it should do so. When, therefore, treaties were entered into between the United States and a tribe of Indians it was never doubted that the power to abrogate existed in Congress, and that in a contingency such power might be availed of from considerations of governmental policy, particularly if consistent with perfect good faith towards the Indians. In United States v. Kagama (1885) 118 U.S. 375, 30 L. ed. 228, 6 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1109, speaking of the Indians, the court said (p. 382, L. ed. p. 230, Sup. Ct. Rep. p. 1113):

'After an experience of a hundred years of the treaty-making system of government Congress has determined upon a new departure, to govern them by acts of Congress. This is seen in the act of March 3, 1871, embodied in § 2079 of the Revised Statutes: 'No Indian nation or tribe, within the territory of the United States, shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty; but no obligation of any treaty lawfully made and ratified with any such Indian nation or tribe prior to March 3d, 1871, shall be hereby invalidated or impaired."

In upholding the validity of an act of Congress which conferred jurisdiction upon the courts of the United States for certain crimes committed on an Indian reservation within a state, the court said (p. 383, L. ed. p. 231, Sup. Ct. Rep. p. 1114): 'It seems to us that this is within the competency of Congress. These Indian tribes are the wards of the nation. They are communities dependent on the United States. Dependent largely for their daily food. Dependent for their political rights. They own no allegiance to the states, and receive from them no protection. Because of the local ill feeling, the people of the states where they are found are often their deadliest enemies. From their very weakness and helplessness, so largely due to the course of dealing of the Federal government with them and the treaties in which it has been promised, there arises the duty of protection, and with it the power. This has always been recognized by the executive and by Congress, and by this court, whenever the question has arisen.

* * * * *

'The power of the general government over these remnants of a race once powerful, now weak and diminished in numbers, is necessary to their protection, as well as to the safety of those among whom they dwell. It must exist in that government, because it never has existed anywhere else, because the theater of its exercise is within the geographical limits of the United States, because it has never been denied, and because it alone can enforce its laws on all the tribes.'

That Indians who had not been fully emancipated from the control and protection of the United States are subject, at least so far as the tribal lands were concerned, to be controlled by direct legislation of Congress, is also declared in Choctaw Nation v. United States, 119 U.S. 1, 27, 30 L. ed. 306, 314, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 75, and Stephens v. Choctaw Nation, 174 U.S. 445, 483, 43 L. ed. 1041, 1054, 19 Sup. Ct. Rep. 722.

In view of the legislative power possessed by Congress over treaties with the Indians and Indian tribal property, we may not specially consider the contentions pressed upon our notice that the signing by the Indians of the agreement of October 6, 1892, was obtained by fraudulent misrepresentations, and concealment, that the requisite three fourths of adult male Indians had not signed, as required by the twelfth article of the treaty of 1867, and that the treaty as signed had been amended by Congress without submitting such amendments to the action of the Indians since all these matters, in any event, were solely within the domain of the legislative authority, and its action is conclusive upon the courts.

The act of June 6, 1900, which is complained of in the bill, was enacted at a time when the tribal relations between the confederated tribes of Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches still existed, and that statute and the statutes supplementary thereto dealt with the disposition of tribal property, and purported to give an adequate consideration for the surplus lands not allotted among the Indians or reserved for their benefit. Indeed, the controversy which this case presents is concluded by the decision in Cherokee Nation v. Hitchcock, 187 U.S. 294, ante, 115, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 115, decided at this term, where it was held that full administrative power was possessed by Congress over Indian tribal property. In effect, the action of Congress now complained of was but an exercise of such power, a mere change in the form of investment of Indian tribal property, the property of those who, as we have held, were in substantial effect the wards of the government. We must presume that Congress acted in perfect good faith in the dealings with the Indians of which complaint is made, and that the legislative branch of the government exercised its best judgment in the premises. In any event, as Congress possessed full power in the matter, the judiciary cannot question or inquire into the motives which prompted the enactment of this legislation. If injury was occasioned, which we do not wish to be understood as implying, by the use made by Congress of its power, relief must be sought by an appeal to that body for redress, and not to the courts. The legislation in question was constitutional, and the demurrer to the bill was therefore rightly sustained.

The motion to dismiss does not challenge jurisdiction over the subject-matter. Without expressly referring to the propositions of fact upon which it proceeds, suffice it to say that we think it need not be further adverted to, since, for the reasons previously given and the nature of the controversy, we think the decree below should be affirmed.

And it is so ordered.

Mr. Justice Harlan concurs in the result.

Notes[edit]

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).