High court won’t look at dispute over Sioux land

By Chet Brokaw
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) June 2011

The Supreme Court refused to get involved in a long-running dispute on the continued existence and size of the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s reservation in southeastern South Dakota.

The justices let stand several rulings in four related cases that are part of a legal battle stretching back nearly two decades

One case involves rulings by a federal judge and an appeals court that found a small part of the once-huge Yankton Sioux Tribe’s reservation still exists and remains under the legal jurisdiction of the tribe and federal government.

The state and Charles Mix County had argued through the legal battles that the reservation was disestablished, or eliminated, in the late 1800s.

But U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol of Sioux Falls agreed with the tribe and the U.S. government when he ruled in 2007 that the reservation covers more than 37,000 acres, or 59 square miles, which is mostly land the government holds in trust for the tribe and individual tribal members.

In another case, the Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling that rejected the tribe’s attempt to prevent the transfer of two federal recreation areas along the Missouri River to the state of South Dakota. The tribe had argued that the recreation areas could not be transferred to the state because they were within the external boundaries of the reservation.

The appeals court found the recreation areas near Fort Randall Dam are not located within the boundaries of the tribe’s reservation. That cleared the way for transferring the North Point Recreation area just above Fort Randall Dam and the nearby White Swan Lakeside Use Area on Lake Francis Case to the state. It also allowed the state’s lease of the Spillway Recreation Area at the dam from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The recreation areas were included in an extensive transfer of Corps of Engineers land along the Missouri River reservoirs to the state. Congress passed a law in 1999 transferring shoreline to the state for recreation and fish and wildlife uses.

South Dakota Attorney General Mary Jackley said the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the cases ends the legal battle, at least for now. He said it gives the state and the tribe a chance to enhance cooperation in fighting crime through a drug task force, a sex offender registry system and other efforts.

“The Yankton Tribe, state and federal government have been litigating jurisdiction for over a decade. It is now time to embrace the opportunity to work together toward strengthening and improving public safety and economic development,” Jackley said.

Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman Robert Cournoyer praised the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the appeal on whether the reservation exists.

“At long last, we have permanent recognition of our reservation, and our people can now celebrate this great victory,” Cournoyer said in a written statement.

The tribe’s general counsel, Charles Abourezk, said the high court’s refusal to hear the case was a victory for the tribe because it leaves intact lower court rulings that found the reservation has clear boundaries and the tribe can purchase land to add to the reservation.

Reservation land is generally subject to tribal and federal jurisdiction, while state law applies on areas outside the reservation.

After a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled that the reservation still exists but does not include land once owned by individual tribal members but now owned by non-Indians. It sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol of Sioux Falls to determine the status of other land.

Piersol ruled that the reservation includes 30,226 acres allotted to individual Indians, land that remains held in trust by the government either for individuals or the tribe. It also includes 914 acres reserved in an 1894 law and then returned to the tribe, and 6,444 acres taken into trust for the tribe under a 1934 law, the judge said.

The appeals court noted that trust lands under jurisdiction of the tribe and federal government are now intermingled with land under state jurisdiction in a checkerboard pattern. However, the appeals judges said state, tribal, federal and local officials have developed a good working relationship to enforce laws.

The cases are Daugaard v. Yankton Sioux Tribe, 10-929; Southern Missouri Recycling v. Yankton Sioux Tribe, 10-931; Hein v. Yankton Sioux Tribe, 10-932; and Yankton Sioux Tribe v. Daugaard, 10-1058.