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Wind River Reservation Taxation Case Raises Other Issues

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A protest against state and local taxation on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes, has generated legal complexities, more than 200 pages of petitions, and litigation spanning the last four years.

The Arapaho sought an injunction against state and local taxes the tribe contended were illegally imposed within 19th Century treaty boundaries of the reservation, including a contested area opened to settlement in 1905 under an amended 1904 agreement disclaimed by the Arapaho but accepted by the Shoshone and United States.

Oral argument was heard May 7 in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Northern Arapaho Tribe v. Scott Harnsberger, Treasurer, Fremont County, Wyoming; Edmund Schmidt, Director, Wyoming Department of Revenue and Taxation; Daniel Noble, Administrator, Excise Tax Division, Wyoming Department of Revenue and Taxation, v. United States of America and Eastern Shoshone Tribe.

Among major issues to be decided are whether the 1905 Act area retains reservation status and remains within Indian country or whether there has been a Congressional diminishment of reservation boundaries in a case with “multiple sovereigns with multiple cases,” the court said.

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About 85 percent of the Wind River Reservation is trust land, attorneys said, but there is a checkerboard area under the 1905 Act where some parcels are owned by settlers and some parcels were sold to individual Indians—some of them tribal members—who now own them as fee lands.

In a series of dismissals and subsequent appeals through the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming and the 10th Circuit, judges decided that the Shoshone and the U.S. should be included in any judgment because the outcome would affect their sovereign rights. When the two entities claimed immunity, the lawsuit was dismissed because, it was said, any judgment would be inadequate without the two as participants.

The oral argument stage precedes a decision that will be issued at an unspecified future date.