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Yankton Sioux Chalk Up Supreme Court Win

News traveled fast on the Yankton Sioux Reservation on Monday, June 20, as word was passed among tribal members of a U.S. Supreme Court decision ending a protracted effort on the part of the State of South Dakota and Charles Mix County to prove that the reservation had been disestablished by various actions, including the Dawes Act of 1887 and the tribe's 1894 land cessions.

Not so, said the Supreme Court, in what Tribal Chairman Robert Cournoyer, Ihanktowan Dakota, called a landmark win: “At long last, we have permanent recognition of our reservation, and our people can celebrate this great victory.”

Charles Abourezk, the tribe’s general counsel, said it was the first American Indian success in the Supreme Court in years and noted that the tribe had been in litigation over the state and county’s claims since 1994, when the tribe sought to stop construction of a solid waste dump on its land. The state and county claimed the reservation no longer existed, and the legal battles began.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled twice in favor of the tribe, saying the reservation had not been disestablished and had specific boundaries. The state and county then turned to the Supreme Court.

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“I think it helped that we hung in there and fought it for so long through all the courts. I’m hopeful that this is the end of South Dakota’s efforts to delegitimize Indian reservations in the state. I’m also hopeful that we can enter a new era of better relations and cooperation with the state. We’re already hearing some positive reactions from the governor and attorney general,” Abourezk said.

The tribe also hopes this assertion of tribal sovereignty will have a ripple effect throughout Indian country, said Abourezk.

One very important result of the Supreme Court decision, he added, is that the tribe can now purchase land and go through the usual process to put it into trust. “That’s huge. Another practical change: the state, which had taken the Yankton reservation off its maps, is going to have to issue new maps.”

The legal team that argued the case included Native American Rights Fund attorney Richard Guest, former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, Clement’s deputy Daryl Joseffer, and attorney Candice Chiu.

“The people of the Yankton Sioux Tribe deserve this victory and formal legal recognition of what has been their homeland for centuries,” Abourezk said.