Friday, November 26, 2021

Indian Land Title and the Doctrine of Discovery

 My wife and I have recently watched a PBS series titled Native America.  It is a strongly biased presentation of Native American history, including the howler about how Indians invented democracy with the Iroquois Confederation, and that the U.S. Constitution was based on it.  The Iroqouis have a legend about how they were required to live in peace.  Of course, this did not apply to anyone else.  See this article about Iroquois "mourning-wars."

What really got me digging, however was the claim that in 2005, the Supreme upheld the Pope's 1493 "Doctrine of Discovery" granting land ownership to the sovereign who discovered new lands.  The case turned out to be City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N. Y., 544 U.S. 197 (2005).  Digging back to the origin of the claim, Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 US 661 (1974) we find:

It very early became accepted doctrine in this Court that although fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign —first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States—a right of occupancy in the Indian tribes was nevertheless recognized. That right, sometimes called Indian title and good against all but the sovereign, could be terminated only by sovereign act. Once the United States was organized and the Constitution adopted, these tribal rights to Indian lands became the exclusive province of the federal law. Indian title, recognized to be only a right of occupancy, was extinguishable only by the United States. 

Doctrine of Discovery was considered a guarantee of Indian ownership.  The City of Sherrill case revolved around:

In the years after the Revolutionary War, "the State of New York came under increasingly heavy pressure to open the Oneidas' land for settlement." Oneida II, 470 U. S., at 231. Reflective of that pressure, in 1788, New York State and the Oneida Nation entered into the Treaty of Fort Schuyler. For payments in money and kind, the Oneidas ceded to New York "all their lands." App. to Pet. for Cert. A136. Of the vast area conveyed, "[t]he Oneidas retained a reservation of about 300,000 acres," Oneida II, 470 U. S., at 231, "for their own use and cultivation," App. to Pet. for Cert. A137 (internal quotation marks omitted).[1] OIN does 204not here contest the legitimacy of the Fort Schuyler conveyance or the boundaries of the reserved area....

Early litigation concerning the Oneidas' land claims trained on monetary recompense from the United States for past deprivations. In 1893, the United States agreed to be sued for disposing of the Kansas lands to settlers, and the Oneidas in New York shared in the resulting award of damages. See New York Indians, 170 U. S. 1New York Indians, 40 Ct. Cl. 448 (identifying the Tribes qualified to share in the distribution of the sum recovered). ...

OIN's predecessor, the Oneida Nation, had transferred the parcels at issue to one of its members in 1805, who sold the land to a non-Indian in 1807. The properties thereafter remained in non-Indian hands until OIN's acquisitions in 1997 and 1998 in open-market transactions. See 337 F. 3d, at 144, n. 3. OIN now operates commercial enterprises on these parcels: a gasoline station, a convenience store, and a textile facility. Id., at 144.

Because the parcels lie within the boundaries of the reservation originally occupied by the Oneidas, OIN maintained that the properties are exempt from taxation, and accordingly refused to pay the assessed property taxes. The city of Sherrill initiated eviction proceedings in state court, and OIN sued Sherrill in federal court. In contrast to Oneida I 12

and II, which involved demands for monetary compensation, OIN sought equitable relief prohibiting, currently and in the future, the imposition of property taxes. OIN also sued Madison County, seeking a declaration that the Tribe's properties in Madison are tax exempt. The litigation involved a welter of claims and counterclaims. Relevant here, the District Court concluded that parcels of land owned by the Tribe in Sherrill and Madison are not taxable. See 145 F. Supp. 2d 226, 254-259 (NDNY 2001). 

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