322 U.S. 419 (1944), 463, Arenas v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 463
Citation:322 U.S. 419, 64 S.Ct. 1090, 88 L.Ed. 1363
Party Name:Arenas v. United States
Case Date:May 22, 1944
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 419

322 U.S. 419 (1944)

64 S.Ct. 1090, 88 L.Ed. 1363



United States

No. 463

United States Supreme Court

May 22, 1944

Argued March 6, 7, 1944




Upon the record in this case, which was a suit brought against the United States under the Act of August 15, 1894, by an Indian claiming, under the Mission Indian Act of 1891, as amended by the Act of March 2, 1917, a right to a trust patent to an allotment of lands which had long been in his possession and which had been considerably improved by him, but which allotment had not been

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finally approved by the Secretary of the Interior, the Government was not entitled to summary judgment, but should be required to answer, and the cause should proceed to trial, findings, and judgment. P. 433.

137 F.2d 199 reversed.

Certiorari, 320 U.S. 733, to review the affirmance of a summary judgment for the United States in a suit against it under a special jurisdictional act.

JACKSON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner Arenas is a full-blood Mission Indian, regularly enrolled in the Agua Caliente or Palm Springs Band. He sued in the United States District Court to be awarded a trust patent to certain lands on the Palm Springs Reservation. The Government was granted a summary judgment of dismissal on affidavits and on the record of the St. Marie litigation on like claims by similarly situated Indians.1 No findings have been made in this case by the District Court. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed,2 chiefly in reliance upon its previous decision in the St. Marie case, and we granted certiorari.3

For a long period, Congress pursued the policy of imposing, as rapidly as possible, our system of individual land tenure on the Indian. To this end, tribal or communal

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land holdings of the Indians were superseded by allotment to individuals, who were protected against improvidence by restraints on alienation.4 The Mission Indians had deserved well, and had fared badly,5 and Congress passed the Mission [64 S.Ct. 1091] Indian Act of Jan. 12, 1891,6 for their particular redress.

The first three sections of this Act set up a commission to settle these several bands on suitable reservations and directed that appropriate patents issue. The United States was to hold the titles in trust, however, for twenty-five years, and then was to convey to the tribes any portions not previously patented in severalty to members. Several reservations were set apart, including one at Palm Springs, with which this and the St. Marie case were concerned.

The Act also provided in § 4 that, whenever, in the opinion of the Secretary of the Interior, any of the Indians should

be so advanced in civilization as to be capable of owning and managing land in severalty, the Secretary of the Interior may cause allotments to be made to such Indians out of the land of such reservation,

and it specified the acreage to be allotted to each. Section 5 provided that, on approval of the allotments, the Secretary should cause patents to issue in the name of the allottees. For twenty-five years, the lands were to remain in trust for their benefit, and then were to be conveyed in fee free of the trust.7

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Nevertheless, little was done toward allotment in severalty to Mission Indians for nearly twenty-five years. One reason, we gather, was that the Act authorized allotment on a more liberal basis than available lands would permit, although there may have been other reasons. In 1916, however, Secretary Lane called the neglect to the attention of Congress and asked that he be authorized to make allotments in quantities governed by the General Allotment Act of 1887, as amended by section 17 of the Act of June 25, 1910, 36 Stat. 859, instead of in those set out in

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the Mission Indian Act of 1891. Thereupon Congress passed the Act of March 2, 1917,8 by which it "authorized and directed" the Secretary to proceed under the Act of 1910.

The Secretary, on June 7, 1921, appointed Harry E. Wadsworth as Special Allotting Agent at Large for the Mission Indian Reservations of California, and instructed him to prepare schedules of selections for allotments thereon. In 1923, Wadsworth filed a schedule showing selections on the [64 S.Ct. 1092] Palm Springs Reservation for fifty members of the Band. The Secretary expressly disapproved this schedule. Complaint had come from the Indians, many of whom did not want allotments and had not made the selections listed in their names. When they failed to choose, the allotment agent had made a choice for them. The Secretary instructed Wadsworth to prepare a new schedule listing only selections voluntarily made, and to leave off those who did not desire allotments. In 1927, the Department received from Wadsworth a new schedule showing voluntary selections for twenty-four members of the Palm Springs Band.

Each Indian for whom a selection was listed received from Wadsworth a certificate of selection for allotment. Each was stamped "Not valid unless approved by the Secretary of the Interior."

On October 26, 1923, Wadsworth asked the Indian Department for instructions, reciting,

Allotments being completed and certificates issued. Many allottees anxious to immediately occupy their selections and prepare things for early crops instead waiting for receipt of patents.

On the same day, he received reply, "No objection to Indians preparing their respective allotment selections for crops if properly listed on schedule." Wadsworth also wrote to one at least, of the allottees in the St. Marie case,

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saying among other things,

It is difficult to tell exactly when you may expect these patents from Washington, but I believe they should be here within 6 weeks or so. They will come to the superintendent in Riverside, who will notify you that they are there and ready for delivery to you. In the meantime, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington authorizes me to say to you that, from this date, you are entitled to enter upon and take possession of these allotments, and these certificates will be your evidence of such authority until the trust patents are received by you.

Wadsworth filed the schedule with the Department of the Interior. He attached a certificate, among other things, reciting

that the allotments shown hereon were made in accordance with the provisions of the act of Congress of February 8, 1887, as amended by the Act of June 25, 1910, and supplemented by the Act of March 2, 1917.

The General Land Office recommended that the schedule be approved, with exceptions that appear to have no bearing on the case before us.

But the allotments appear never to have been approved by the Secretary. He refuses to issue patents to which these Indians claim to be entitled. The Government's moving papers contain an affidavit by counsel declaring that the Secretary disapproved the allotments. But it gives no reason, and no order or statement of disapproval by the Secretary is in the record. The Government filed no pleading averring reasons for disapproval or, if disapproval was formal, setting forth the document. On the contrary, counsel seems to have taken the position that, as matter of law, the Secretary's reasons and the form of his disapproval were not relevant to any question the Court is empowered to decide.

The power of the Secretary so to refuse patents and the powerlessness of the courts to review the refusal are here maintained on these contentions:

It rests in the

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complete discretion of the Secretary of the Interior whether or not allotments shall be made on the Palm Spring Reservation. Sections 4 and 5 of the Act of January 12, 1891, contemplate three steps in the making of allotments on that reservation: (1) an opinion by the Secretary as to the capacity of the Indians to receive allotments; (2) a method or procedure for making such allotments, and (3) approval of the allotments by the Secretary. Each of these steps is under the control and rests in the discretion of the Secretary.

Upon these grounds, the trial court and the Circuit Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs in the St. Marie cases were not entitled to patents, and that this petitioner is not entitled to go to trial.


The Secretary's Discretion in Determining the

Capacity of the Indians to Receive Allotments

The Act of 1891 provides that,

whenever any of the Indians residing upon any reservation patented under the provisions of this act shall, in the opinion of the Secretary of the Interior, be so advanced in civilization as to be capable of owning and managing land in severalty, the Secretary of the Interior may cause allotments to be made to such Indians.

(Emphasis supplied.) This undoubtedly conferred a very considerable discretion upon the Secretary.

The Act of 1917, however, drops the language of discretion and directs the Secretary to cause allotments to be made to the Indians on the Mission reservations.9 The

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Act was prepared by the Secretary,10 and if it was intended to perpetuate his discretion as to whether the allotment policy was to be applied to these Indians at all, it might easily have so provided. Both the Secretary and Congress appears to have settled that point. The communication of the Secretary to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs indicates no reservations about the Secretary's view that the Indians were qualified, and that the Department should carry out the allotment policy. It points out certain evils and inequalities among the Indians under the tribal system of land holdings, and says, "This is a condition that cannot be cured entirely until the lands have been allotted in severalty." And again it says,

The Department believes that the present conditions, while much better than they were some years ago,...

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