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Yankton Sioux lose Supreme Court bid

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. Supreme Court refused to deal with the Yankton Sioux Tribe's bid to retain its original exterior reservation boundaries.

The case was filed to regain jurisdiction over land that was the original reservation by treaty, most of Charles Mix County. The state of South Dakota claims the reservation was disestablished while the Yankton Sioux Tribe based its claims on historical development of the reservation including the era of the Dawes Act, which opened the reservation to non-Indian development.

It is the settlement agreement of 1887 the state claims disestablished the reservation. A series of court rulings favored either side and each was appealed as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. Now it's back to District Court.

"This was certainly a blow to the Yankton Tribe. It won't stop the tribe from working to put back what has been taken from them," said tribal attorney Mary Wynn.

"The tribe will continue working to put together a land base. They are here to stay and won't go away. This is where they live and will not go away. They will fight to put back what has been taken away. The Yankton Tribe has survived worse than this."

The High Court justices made no comment in rejecting the plea. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals set the wheels in motion when the three-judge panel said the Yankton Reservation had very little land base. State attorneys estimated that only one square mile of the original reservation set in 1858 remained intact. The appellate court ruling left the reservation with approximately 40,000 acres, land either held in trust by the federal government for the tribe or for tribal members.

The jurisdictional issue now goes back to District Judge Lawrence Piersol to determine the status of those estimated 40,000 acres.

The Supreme Court rejection puts the issue back where criminal jurisdiction was thought to be for the past 100 years. Until Judge Piersol makes a ruling, it will remain as it was before the lawsuits began in 1992.

The treaty of 1858 established an 11 million-acre reservation in the southeastern portion of South Dakota. The majority of Charles Mix county lies within the exterior boundaries of the existing reservation. In 1887, the Allotment Act set the stage for removal of tribal land. In 1894, Congress ratified an act written two years earlier that removed millions of acres from Yankton tribal control by opening the reservation to settlement by non-Indian settlers.

Lower court decisions favored the Yankton Tribe over arguments by the state that Congress intended to disestablish the reservation. The state's argument all along has been that as land passed out of tribal members' hands it was taken out of trust status, therefore removed from the jurisdiction of the tribe.

Past Supreme Court decisions went against that argument. The high court ruled seven times that when allotments were taken out of the hands of tribal members, the land remained part of a 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, notwithstanding the subsequent issuance of a fee patent or conveyance to non-Indians," Wynn said.

The Yankton Sioux became embroiled in continuing litigation because of a proposed landfill that was to be located in what the tribe regarded as reservation land. The tribe filed suit with intent to require a proper environmental assessment of the project. The state entered the lawsuit as a third party asking that the reservation boundary be determined.

The case went to the Supreme Court, which decided boundaries had not been disestablished or reduced. The court said that 168,000 acres of land sold to non-Indians for settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was no longer Indian land. Jurisdiction over that land was the state's responsibility, which is what the tribe and the state knew. This took the issue to the point before any lawsuits were filed.