442 U.S. 653 (1979), 78-160, Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe

Docket Nº:No. 78-160
Citation:442 U.S. 653, 99 S.Ct. 2529, 61 L.Ed.2d 153
Party Name:Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe
Case Date:June 20, 1979
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 653

442 U.S. 653 (1979)

99 S.Ct. 2529, 61 L.Ed.2d 153

Wilson

v.

Omaha Indian Tribe

No. 78-160

United States Supreme Court

June 20, 1979

Argued March 21, 1979

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Pursuant to an 1854 treaty, the reservation of the Omaha Indian Tribe (Tribe) [99 S.Ct. 2531] was established in the Territory of Nebraska on the west bank of the Missouri River, with the eastern boundary being fixed as the center of the river's main channel. In 1867, a General Land Office survey established that certain land was included in the reservation, but since then, the river has changed course several times, leaving most of the survey area on the Iowa side of the river, separated from the rest of the reservation. Residents of Iowa ultimately settled on and improved this land, and these non-Indian owners and their successors in title occupied the land for many years prior to April 2, 1975, when they were dispossessed by the Tribe, with the assistance of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Three federal actions, consolidated in District Court, were instituted by respondents, the Tribe and the United States as trustee of the reservation lands, against petitioners, including the State of Iowa and several individuals. Both sides sought to quiet title in their names, respondents arguing that the river's movement had been avulsive, and thus did not affect the reservation's boundary, whereas petitioners argued that the disputed land had been formed by gradual accretion and belonged to the Iowa riparian owners. The District Court held that state, rather than federal, law should be the basis of decision; that 25 U.S.C. § 19 -- which provides that,

[i]n all trials about the right of property in which an Indian may be a party on one side, and a white person on the other, the burden of proof shall rest upon the white person, whenever the Indian shall make out a presumption of title in himself from the fact of previous possession or ownership

-- was not applicable, because the Tribe could not make out a prima facie case that it possessed the disputed land in the past without proving its case on the merits; and that, under Nebraska law, the changes in the river had been accretive, and thus the petitioners were the owners of the disputed area. The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that federal, rather than state, law was applicable; that the Tribe had made a sufficient showing to invoke

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§ 194; and that, applying the federal common law of accretion and avulsion to the evidence, the evidence was in equipoise, and thus, under § 194, judgment must be entered for the Tribe.

Held:

1. The Court of Appeals was partially correct in ruling that § 194 is applicable here; by its terms, § 194 applies to the private petitioners, but not to petitioner State of Iowa. In view of the history of § 194 and its purpose of protecting Indians from claims made by non-Indian squatters on their lands, it applies even when an Indian tribe is the litigant, rather than one or more individual Indians. But, while Congress was aware that § 194 would be interpreted to cover artificial entities, such as corporations, as well as individuals, there is nothing to indicate that Congress intended the word "white person" to include any of the States of the Union. Here, there seems to be no question that the disputed land was once riparian land lying on the west bank of the Missouri River, and was long occupied by the Tribe as part of the reservation set apart for it in consequence of the 1854 treaty, and this was enough to bring § 194 into play. In view of the purpose of the statute and its use of the term "presumption" which the "white man" must overcome, § 194 contemplates the non-Indian's shouldering the burden of persuasion as well as the burden of producing evidence once the tribe has made out its prima facie case of prior title or possession. Pp. 664-669.

2. The Court of Appeals properly concluded that federal law governs the substantive aspects of the dispute, but it erred in arriving at a federal standard, independent of state law, to determine whether there had been an avulsion or an accretion. Pp. 669-679.

(a) The general rule that, absent an overriding federal interest, the laws of the several States determine the ownership of the banks and shores of waterways, Oregon e rel. State Land Board v. Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co., 429 U.S. 363, does not oust federal law in this litigation. [99 S.Ct. 2532] Here, the United States has never yielded title or terminated its interest in the property, and, in these circumstances, the Indians' right to the property depends on federal law, "wholly apart from the application of state law principles which normally and separately protect a valid right of possession." Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661, 677. Pp. 669-671.

(b) However, state law should be borrowed as the federal rule of decision here. There is no imperative need to develop a general body of federal common law to decide cases such as this, where an interstate boundary is not in dispute (the location of the boundary between Iowa and Nebraska having been settled by Compact in 1943). Furthermore,

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given equitable application of state law, there is little likelihood of injury to federal trust responsibilities or to tribal possessory interests. And this is also an area in which the States have substantial interest in having their own law resolve controversies such as these; there is considerable merit in not having the reasonable expectations, under state real property law, of private landowners upset by the vagaries of being located adjacent to or across from Indian reservations or other property in which the United States has a substantial interest. Cf. Board of Comm'rs v. United States, 308 U.S. 343; Arkansas v. Tennessee, 246 U.S. 158. Pp. 671-676.

(c) Under the construction of the 1943 Compact in Nebraska v. Iowa, 406 U.S. 117, Nebraska law should be applied in determining whether the changes in the river that moved the disputed land from Nebraska to Iowa were avulsive or accretive. Pp. 676-678.

575 F.2d 620, vacated and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except POWELL, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 679.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

At issue here is the ownership of a tract of land on the east bank of the Missouri River in Iowa. Respondent Omaha

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Indian Tribe, supported by the United States as trustee of the Tribe's reservation lands,1 claims the tract as part of reservation lands created for it under an 1854 treaty. Petitioners, including the State of Iowa and several individuals, argue that past movements of the Missouri River washed away part of the reservation and the soil accreted to the Iowa side of the river, vesting title in them as riparian landowners.2

[99 S.Ct. 2533] Two principal issues are presented. First, we are faced with novel questions regarding the interpretation and scope

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of Rev.Stat. § 2126, as set forth in 25 U.S.C. § 194, a 145-year-old, but seldom used, statute that provides:

In all trials about the right of property in which an Indian may be a party on one side, and a white person on the other, the burden of proof shall rest upon the white person, whenever the Indian shall make out a presumption of title in himself from the fact of previous possession or ownership.

Second, we must decide whether federal or state law determines whether the critical changes in the course of the Missouri River in this case were accretive or avulsive.

I

In 1854, the Omaha Indian Tribe ceded most of its aboriginal lands by treaty to the United States in exchange for money and assistance to enable the Tribe to cultivate its retained lands. Treaty of Mar. 16, 1854, 10 Stat. 1043; see United States v. Omaha Indians, 253 U.S. 275, 277-278 (1920). The retained lands proved unsatisfactory to the Tribe, and it exercised its option under the treaty to exchange those lands for a tract of 300,000 acres to be designated by the President and acceptable to the Tribe. The Blackbird Hills area, on the west bank of the Missouri, all of which was then part of the Territory of Nebraska, was selected. The eastern boundary of the reservation was fixed as the center of the main channel of the Missouri River, the thalweg.3 That land,

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as modified by a subsequent treaty and statutes,4 has remained the home of the Omaha Indian Tribe.

In 1867, a survey by T. H. Barrett of the General Land Office established that the reservation included a large peninsula jutting east toward the opposite, Iowa, side of the river, around which the river flowed in an oxbow curve known as Blackbird Bend.5 Over the next few decades, the river changed course several times, sometimes moving east, sometimes west.6 Since 1927, the river has been west of [99 S.Ct. 2534] its 1867 position, leaving most of the Barrett survey area on the Iowa side of the river, separated from the rest of the reservation.

As the area, now on the Iowa side, dried out, Iowa residents settled on, improved, and farmed it. These non-Indian owners and their successors in title occupied the land for many

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years prior to April 2, 1975, when they were dispossessed by the Tribe, with the assistance of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Four lawsuits followed the seizure, three in federal court and one in state court. The Federal District Court for the Northern District of Iowa consolidated the three federal actions, severed claims to damages and lands outside the Barrett survey area, and issued a temporary injunction that permitted the Tribe to continue possession. The court then tried the case without a jury....

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