Judge Dismisses Indian Land Claim Cases
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) _ In a ruling that could set a precedent for thousands of cases nationally, a judge has dismissed three lawsuits seeking the return of land to descendants of the original Indian owners.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Bogue’s dismissal of the cases provides a precedent for disposing of up to 3,000 potential similar land-claim cases in South Dakota and about 9,500 around the nation, state Attorney General Mark Meierhenry said Tuesday.
But lawyer Ramon Roubideaux, who represents Indians in the case, said the rulings, issued last week, would be appealed.
″I think Judge Bogue is wrong, and I think the court of appeals or the Supreme Court, if necessary, is going to overturn him or reverse him,″ Roubideaux said.
The lawsuits alleged that the land should be returned to the plaintiffs because the federal government illegally transferred the land more than 60 years ago to other Indians, who later sold it or otherwise lost it.
Assistant Attorney General John Guhin said less than 50 land-claim lawsuits have been filed in South Dakota, but thousands more might be filed if the first cases succeed.
Some of the land is now held by Indian tribes or individual Indian ranchers, so the dispute is not just between Indians and white ranchers, Guhin said.
Meierhenry said Bogue’s ruling is the first step toward settling the title to thousands of acres of South Dakota land now owned by ranchers.
″The time for looking backward is over,″ Meierhenry said. ″I hope we can now join together to solve our real and immediate problems.″
The land in dispute was originally held in trust for Indians by the federal government. From 1917 to 1920, the government transferred the land to ownership by individual Indians, frequently without the Indians’ consent.
The suits, filed by descendants of the original Indian owners, alleged that the government acted improperly by forcing Indians to take ownership, usually in 160-acre parcels.
Bogue ruled that federal law gave former owners no right to sue, and the suits must fail because the federal government was an indispensable party but could not be legally brought into the case.
Congress might be the next step for the Indians who filed the lawsuits, Meierhenry said.
″If the Indian plaintiffs in this case still feel aggrieved, they have the option of appealing to Congress for monetary relief,″ the attorney general said.
Congress can’t give the land back, but it could reimburse the plaintiffs by giving them money or federal land, Meierhenry said.