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IRS auctioned Crow Creek’s ancestral land for purported back taxes

FT. THOMPSON, S.D. – The Internal Revenue Service has auctioned thousands of acres of land owned by the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, claiming the tribe owes back taxes.

Speaking to Indian Country Today Dec. 3 just moments after he was informed of the sale, Crow Creek Sioux Chairman Brandon Sazue said the IRS auctioned off 7,100 acres to collect purported delinquent employment taxes owed since 2003.

The tribal nation is determined to recover the property, which is not only within its ancestral territory, but also some of the tribe’s most valuable land that was slated for energy development.

The tribal council filed a lawsuit Dec. 1 in the U.S. District Court for South Dakota, seeking a restraining order to prevent the IRS from selling the land, but the court denied the request.

However, tribal attorneys also filed a notice of lis pendens or “pending lawsuit” – an action that secures a plaintiff’s claim on a property so that even if a sale takes place it cannot be finalized until a court determines the outcome of the lawsuit.

A trial will take place next spring, Sazue said.

“On March 29 and March 30, we’re going to have an all out trial about the land, and about the IRS because it has been levying our tribal accounts and hurting the tribe,” Sazue said. “They come in and take the money before payroll; just last week they took $48,000. They’ve been doing that until this day, so how much money have they taken from the tribe already? In order for us to get the land back we’ve got 180 days to buy it back for whatever the guy paid for it plus 20 percent. They sold it this morning to some guy by the name of Klein from the Highmore, S.D. area.”

The purchaser cannot develop the land or do anything on it until the trial is completed, Sazue said.

The IRS in Washington could not be reached by press time. The IRS office in Rapid City, which auctioned off the Crow Creek property, had a telephone menu with a number of options, but no access to a person.

According to court documents, the IRS claims the tribe owes about $3,123,790 in back taxes, penalties and interest from 2003 to August 2009. The estimated value of the land is $4,634,000, according to an appraisal filed with the tribe’s lawsuit.

The land is part of the Crow Creek Reservation that was established by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The treaty aimed to end the war between the settler colonists and the indigenous peoples of the west.

“This war,” the famous Sioux leader Spotted Tail said at the time, “was brought upon us by the children of the Great Father who came to take our land from us without price.”

The 7,100 acres were previously held in trust for the tribe by the federal government, but during the Dawes Act era – the Allotment Period of the late 19th century – the land was fractionalized, came out of trust and sold to non-Indians.

The tribe bought back its land in 1998 through the Crow Creek Tribal Farms, Inc., a corporation formed as a separate entity from the tribe.

The lawsuit says BIA gave the tribe “erroneous tax advice” around 2003 when it said the tribe didn’t have to pay federal employment taxes because it’s a federally recognized sovereign nation.

“The tribe has attempted since then to pay the arrearages and subsequent amounts as they come due, but has been unable to bring the employment taxes current because over this same amount of time the Internal Revenue Services have levied and garnished various accounts of the tribe making it impossible for the tribe to bring the taxes current,” according to the lawsuit.

BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the bureau is not involved in the case.

Tribal members have lived on the land for decades. The tribe uses the land for cultural activities and “members died and were buried on the land,’ the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit argues that a “plethora of laws” protect the land from alienation, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the 1790 Indian Nonintercourse Act.

Some people continue to live on the land and the tribe’s gymnasium is located on the land in the Big Bend district. The tribe has plans to develop an energy facility on the property.

“Wind energy,” Sazue said. “That’s our prime spot for wind energy. We’re going to lose a lot if we can’t save our land.”

Sazue said the tribe intends to make every effort to recover its ancestral land and ask Interior to put it back into trust. The tribe is appealing to Indian country for help.

“If there is any way possible, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m begging for help, but at this time anything would be worth it. We’re in really bad shape and we need all the help we can get. That’s 20 percent of our land.”

Sazue can be reached at (605) 730-0378.