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decided: February 23, 1903.



Author: Harlan

[ 188 U.S. Page 435]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

I. Were the lands held by the allottees, Charles B. Crawford and the other Indians named in the bill, subject to assessment and taxation by the taxing authorities of Roberts County, South Dakota?

This is the first of the questions certified by the judges of the Circuit Court of Appeals. It is not, in our opinion, difficult of solution.

By the act of Congress of February 8, 1887, c. 119, referred to in the certificate and known as the General Allotment Act, provision was made for the allotment of lands in severalty to Indians on the various reservations, and for extending the protection of the laws of the United States and the Territories over the Indians. To that end the President was authorized, whenever, in his opinion, a reservation or any part thereof was advantageous for agricultural and grazing purposes, to cause it, or any part thereof, to be surveyed or resurveyed or resurveyed if necessary, and to allot the lands in the reservation in severalty to any Indian located thereon in certain quantities specified in the statute -- the allotments to be made by special agents appointed for that purpose, and by the agents in charge of the special reservations on which the allotments were made. 24 Stat. 388, 389-90, § 1.

What interest, if any, did the Indian allottee acquire in the land allotted to him? That question is answered by the fifth section of the allotment act, which provides: "That upon the approval of the allotments provided for in this act by the Secretary of the Interior, he shall cause patents to issue therefor in the name of the allottees, which patents shall be of the legal effect, and declare that the United States does and will hold the land thus allotted, for the period of twenty-five years, in trust for the sole use and benefit of the Indian to whom such allotment shall have been made, or, in case of his decease, of his heirs according to the laws of the State or Territory where

[ 188 U.S. Page 436]

     such land is located, and that at the expiration of said period the United States will convey the same by patent to said Indian, or his heirs as aforesaid, in fee, discharged of said trust and free of all charge or incumbrance whatsoever: Provided, That the President of the United States may in any case in his discretion extend the period. And if any conveyance shall be made of the lands set apart and allotted as herein provided, or any contract made touching the same, before the expiration of the time above mentioned, such conveyance or contract shall be absolutely null and void: Prvided, That the law of descent and partition in force in the State or Territory where such lands are situate shall apply there to after patents therefor have been executed and delivered, except as herein otherwise provided; . . ." 24 Stat. 389, § 5.

The word "patents," where it is first used in this section, was not happily chosen to express the thought which, it is clear, all parts of the section being considered, Congress intended to express. The "patents" here referred to (although that word has various meanings) were, as the statute plainly imports, nothing more than instruments or memoranda in writing, designed to show that for a period of twenty-five years the United States would hold the land allotted, in trust for the sole use and benefit of the allottee, or, in case of his death, of his heirs, and subsequently, at the expiration of that period -- unless the time was extended by the President -- convey the fee, discharged of the trust and free of all charge or incumbrance. In other words, the United States retained the legal title, giving the Indian allottee a paper or writing, improperly called a patent, showing that at a particular time in the future, unless it was extended by the President, he would be entitled to a regular patent conveying the fee. This interpretation of the statute is in harmony with the explicit declaration that any conveyance of the land, or any contract touching the same, while the Uited States held the title in trust, should be absolutely null and void. So that the United States retained its hold on the land allotted for the period of twenty-five years after the allotment, and as much longer as the President, in his discretion, should determine.

The bill, as appears from the certificate of the judges, shows

[ 188 U.S. Page 437]

     that the lands in question were allotted "under provisions of the agreement of December 12, 1889, as ratified by the act of March 3, 1891, and more particularly under section V of the General Allotment Act approved February 8, 1887." Upon inspection of that agreement we find nothing that indicates any different relation of the United States to the allotted lands from that created or recognized by the act of 1887. On the contrary, the agreement contemplates that patents shall issue for the lands allotted under it "upon the same terms and conditions and limitations as is provided in section five of the act of Congress approved February 8, 1887." 26 Stat. 1035, 1036, art. IV.

If, as is undoubtedly the case, these lands are held by the United States in execution of its plans relating to the Indians -- without any right in the Indians to make contracts in reference to them or to do more than to occupy and cultivate them -- until a regular patent conveying the fee was issued to the several allottees, it would follow that there was no power in the State of South Dakota, for state or municipal purposes, to assess and tax the lands in question until at least the fee was conveyed to the Indians. These Indians are yet wards of the Nation, in a condition of pupilage or dependency, and have not been discharged from that condition. They occupy these lands with the consent and authority of the United States; and the holding of them by the United States under the act of 1887, and the agreement of 1889, ratified by the act of 1891, is part of the national policy by which the Indians are to be maintained as well as prepared for assuming the habits of civilized life, and ultimately the privileges of citizenship. To tax these lands is to tax an instrumentality employed by the United States for the benefit and control of this dependent race, and to accomplish beneficent objects with reference to a race of which this court has said that "from their very weakness and helplessness, so largely due to the course of dealing of the Federal Government with them and the treaties in which it has been promised, there arises the duty of protection, and with it the power. This has always been recognized by the Executive and by Congress, and by this court, whenever the

[ 188 U.S. Page 438]

     question has arisen." United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375, 384. So that if they may be taxed, then the obligations which the Government has assumed in reference to these Indians may be entirely defeated; for by the act of 1887 the Government has agreed at a named time to convey the land to the allottee in fee, discharged of the trust, "and free of all charge or encumbrances whatsoever." To say that these lands may be assessed and taxed by the county of Roberts under the authority of the State, is to say they may be sold for the taxes, and thus become so burdened that the United States could ...

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