Yankton jurisdiction may go to High Court

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MARTY, S.D. - The Yankton Sioux Tribe has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether its reservation boundaries were diminished and to determine jurisdiction within the exterior boundaries of the reservation.

A September 1999 ruling by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, in effect, diminished exterior boundaries of the reservation to reflect the land held in trust by the tribe. The state of South Dakota had appealed lower court rulings that upheld reservation boundaries and argued the reservation was disestablished.

The 1858 treaty that established the reservation allocated 11 million acres to the Yankton Sioux Tribe. The appellate court decision left some 40,000 acres. The state argues that only one square mile remains as reservation land.

"The sweeping, unprecedented change in federal Indian law made by the 8th Circuit should command the full attention of the (U.S. Supreme) court. This court should intervene to prevent the foreseeable legal chaos which will result from the Circuit Court's unprecedented decision," said Mary Wynn, attorney for the tribe.

Wynn, in her comments to the high court, said the appeals court went against other Supreme Court decisions and against United States law that defines Indian country by making the decision against the Yankton tribe.

"Adopting a view consistently rejected by the Supreme Court, the Circuit Court found that Congress intended lands which passed to non-Indians under the General Allotment Act would cease to be reservation land," Wynn said. "Unless reversed, the Circuit Court view will disrupt tribal relations with the United States and cause great destruction to the very fabric of tribal government and institutions."

The 1887 General Allotment Act provided acreages to tribal members. The remainder of the reservations were to be opened for settlement by non-Indians. In 1892 an act, by Congress in 1894, opened the Yankton Reservation. The state of South Dakota argued in lower court proceedings that it was the intent of Congress to disestablish the reservation. Federal district court decisions did not uphold that argument.

The state contended that legal opinions showed that as allotted lands passed out of tribal members' ownership, the reservation was diminished by that amount. This was inconsistent with past Supreme Court decisions and with a ruling it made in relation to the Yankton case. The high court said the Yankton reservation was neither diminished nor disestablished. That ruling was in a case concerning jurisdiction within reservation boundaries. The court made seven such rulings with the same results - that when allotments were no longer in the hands of the tribal members, those allotments were part of the reservation.

"The Supreme Court has consistently held that the step toward termination made by the General Allotment Act was not sufficient to remove allotments from existing reservations, not withstanding the subsequent issuance of a fee patent or conveyance to non-Indians," Wynn said.

The Yankton Sioux Tribe got into the fray because it tried to exercise jurisdiction over a proposed solid waste facility to be located within what it considered to be reservation boundaries. The tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Southern Missouri Waste Management District to prevent construction of the facility until an extensive environmental study could be made.

South Dakota entered as a third party with the intent of asking the court to determine the boundary of the reservation. The lower courts upheld the present reservation boundaries and the Supreme Court said the Yankton Reservation was not diminished.

Wynn argues that a compelling reason for the Supreme Court take the case is that the 8th Circuit Court decision was not just contrary to the higher court's past decisions but by rewriting the law, it could have nationwide repercussions. She wrote that the decision could have jurisdictional issues that could affect tribal courts. "The Circuit Court's radical redefinition of Indian country will void innumerable tribal court decisions. Based upon the heretofore settled law, these tribal courts have long exercised jurisdiction over Indians on former allotments."

It is not certain if the U.S. Supreme Court will decide to hear the case.