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South Dakota v. Yankton Sioux Tribe

ELR Citation: 28 ELR 20293
Nos. 96-1581, 118 S. Ct. 789/(U.S., 01/26/1998)

The Court holds that a landfill constructed on land ceded from the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota by an 1894 Act that diminished the boundaries of the reservation is not subject to federal environmental regulation. The Court first holds that the 1894 Act—a negotiated agreement providing for the total surrender of tribal claims in exchange for a fixed payment—bears the hallmarks of congressional intent to diminish a reservation. The 1894 Act includes language that is precisely suited to terminating reservation status. The Court next holds that the 1894 Act's saving clause, which states that nothing in the agreement's terms shall be construed to abrogate the treaty of 1858, pertains to the continuance of annuities, not the 1858 borders. In light of the fact that the record of the negotiations between government officials and the tribe contains no discussion of the preservation of the 1858 boundaries but many references to the government's failure to fulfill earlier promises, it seems most likely that the parties inserted and understood the savings clause to assuage the tribes' concerns about their past claims and future entitlements. The Court also holds that from the inclusion of a provision prohibiting liquor on ceded lands it can be reasonably inferred that Congress was aware that the opened, and unallotted land areas would henceforth not be "Indian country," because by 1892 Congress already had enacted laws prohibiting alcohol on Indian reservations.

The Court also considers the contemporary historical context of the Act, subsequent congressional and administrative references to the reservation, and demographic trends. Although the context of the Act is not so compelling that, standing alone, it would indicate diminishment, neither does it rebut the "almost insurmountable presumption" that arises from the statute's plain terms. Still, the Court finds that the manner in which the transaction was negotiated with the Yankton Tribe and the tenor of legislative reports presented to Congress reveal a contemporaneous understanding that the proposed legislation modified the reservation. In addition, although in the years since the Act was passed both Congress and the executive branch have described the reservation in contradictory terms and treated the region in an inconsistent manner, the Court holds that the mixed record carries little force in light of the strong textual and contemporaneous evidence of diminishment. Furthermore, the fact that the Yankton population in the region promptly and drastically declined after the 1894 Act does provide one additional clue as to what Congress expected. And the state's assumption of jurisdiction over the territory, almost immediately after the 1894 Act and continuing virtually unchallenged to the present day, further reinforces the Court's holding. Because Congress diminished the Yankton Sioux Reservation in the 1894 Act, ceding the unallotted tracts from the reservation, the Court last holds that the state has primary jurisdiction over the waste site and other lands ceded under the Act.

[Prior decisions in this litigation are published at 26 ELR 20505 and 27 ELR 20374.]

Counsel for Petitioner
John P. Guhin, Ass't Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
500 E. Capitol St., Pierre SD 57501
(605) 773-3215

Counsel for Respondents
James G. Abourezk
Law Offices of James G. Abourezk
2040 W. Main St., Rapid City SD 57702
(605) 342-0097