470 U.S. 226 (1985), 83-1065, County of Oneida, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation

Docket Nº:No. 83-1065
Citation:470 U.S. 226, 105 S.Ct. 1245, 84 L.Ed.2d 169, 53 U.S.L.W. 4225
Party Name:County of Oneida, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation
Case Date:March 04, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 226

470 U.S. 226 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 1245, 84 L.Ed.2d 169, 53 U.S.L.W. 4225

County of Oneida, New York


Oneida Indian Nation

No. 83-1065

United States Supreme Court

March 4, 1985

of New York State

Argued October 1, 1984




Respondent Indian Tribes (hereafter respondents) brought an action in Federal District Court against petitioner counties (hereafter petitioners), alleging that respondents' ancestors conveyed tribal land to New York State under a 1795 agreement that violated the Nonintercourse Act of 1793 -- which provided that no person or entity could purchase Indian land without the Federal Government's approval -- and that thus the transaction was void. Respondents sought damages representing the fair rental value, for a specified 2-year period, of that part of the land presently occupied by petitioners. The District Court found petitioners liable for wrongful possession of the land in violation of the 1793 Act, awarded respondents damages, and held that New York, a third-party defendant brought into the case by petitioners' cross-claim, must indemnify petitioners for the damages owed to respondents. The Court of Appeals affirmed the liability and indemnification rulings, but remanded for further proceedings on the amount of damages.


1. Respondents have a federal common law right of action for violation of their possessory rights. Pp. 233-240.

(a) The possessory rights claimed by respondents are federal rights to the lands at issue. Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661, 671. It has been implicitly assumed that Indians have a federal common law right to sue to enforce their aboriginal land rights, and their right of occupancy need not be based on a treaty, statute, or other Government action. Pp. 233-236.

(b) Respondents' federal common law right of action was not preempted by the Nonintercourse Acts. In determining whether a federal statute preempts common law causes of action, the relevant inquiry is whether the statute speaks directly [105 S.Ct. 1248] to the question otherwise answered by federal common law. Here, the 1793 Act did not speak directly to the question of remedies for unlawful conveyances of Indian land, and there is no indication in the legislative history that Congress intended to preempt common law remedies. Milwaukee v. Illinois,

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451 U.S. 304, distinguished. And Congress' actions subsequent to the 1793 Act and later versions thereof demonstrate that the Acts did not preempt common law remedies. Pp. 236-240.

2. There is no merit to any of petitioners' alleged defenses. Pp. 240-250.

(a) Where, as here, there is no controlling federal limitations period, the general rule is that a state limitations period for an analogous cause of action will be borrowed and applied to the federal action, provided that application of the state statute would not be inconsistent with underlying federal policies. In this litigation, the borrowing of a state limitations period would be inconsistent with the federal policy against the application of state statutes of limitations in the context of Indian claims. Pp. 240-244.

(b) This Court will not reach the issue of whether respondents' claims are barred by laches where the defense was unsuccessfully asserted at trial but not reasserted on appeal, and thus not ruled upon by the Court of Appeals. Pp. 244-245.

(c) Respondents' cause of action did not abate when the 1793 Act expired. That Act merely codified the principle that a sovereign act was required to extinguish aboriginal title, and thus that a conveyance without the sovereign's consent was void ab initio. All subsequent versions of the Act contain substantially the same restraint on alienation of Indian lands. Pp. 245-246.

(d) In view of the principles that treaties with Indians should be construed liberally in favor of the Indians, and that congressional intent to extinguish Indian title must be plain and unambiguous, and will not be lightly implied, the 1798 and 1802 Treaties in which respondents ceded additional land to New York are not sufficient to show that the United States ratified New York's unlawful purchase of the land in question. Pp. 246-248.

(e) Nor are respondents' claims barred by the political question doctrine. Congress' constitutional authority over Indian affairs does not render the claims nonjusticiable, and, a fortiori, Congress' delegation of authority to the President does not do so either. Nor have petitioners shown any convincing reasons for thinking that there is a need for "unquestioning adherence" to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs' declining to bring an action on respondents' behalf with respect to the claims in question. Pp. 248-250.

3. The courts below erred in exercising ancillary jurisdiction over petitioners' cross-claim for indemnity by the State. The cross-claim raises a question of state law, and there is no evidence that the State has waived its constitutional immunity under the Eleventh Amendment to suit in federal court on this question. Pp. 250-253.

719 F.2d 525, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

Page 228

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BLACKMUN and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, in all but Part V of which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, and in Part V of which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and REHNQIST, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 254. STEVENS, J., filed a separate statement concurring in the judgment in part, post, p. 254, and an opinion dissenting in part, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 255.

Page 229

POWELL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court. *

These cases present the question whether three Tribes of the Oneida Indians may bring a suit for damages for the occupation [105 S.Ct. 1249] and use of tribal land allegedly conveyed unlawfully in 1795.


The Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the Oneida Indian Nation of Wisconsin, and the Oneida of the Thames Band Council (the Oneidas) instituted this suit in 1970 against the Counties of Oneida and Madison, New York. The Oneidas alleged that their ancestors conveyed 100,000 acres to the State of New York under a 1795 agreement that violated the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1793 (Nonintercourse Act), 1 Stat. 329, and thus that the transaction was void. The Oneidas' complaint sought damages representing the fair rental value of that part of the land presently owned and occupied by the Counties of Oneida and Madison, for the period January 1, 1968, through December 31, 1969.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of New York initially dismissed the action on the ground that the complaint failed to state a claim arising under the laws of the United States. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 464 F.2d 916 (1972). We then granted certiorari and reversed. Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661 (1974) (Oneida I). We held unanimously that, at least for jurisdictional purposes, the Oneidas stated a claim for possession under federal law. Id. at 675. The case was remanded for trial.

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On remand, the District Court trifurcated trial of the issues. In the first phase, the court found the counties liable to the Oneidas for wrongful possession of their lands. 434 F.Supp. 527 (1977). In the second phase, it awarded the Oneidas damages in the amount of $16,694, plus interest, representing the fair rental value of the land in question for the 2-year period specified in the complaint. Finally, the District Court held that the State of New York, a third-party defendant brought into the case by the counties, must indemnify the counties for the damages owed to the Oneidas. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's rulings with respect to liability and indemnification. 719 F.2d 525 (1983). It remanded, however, for further proceedings on the amount of damages. Id. at 542. The counties and the State petitioned for review of these rulings. Recognizing the importance of the Court of Appeals' decision not only for the Oneidas, but potentially for many eastern Indian land claims, we granted certiorari, 465 U.S. 1099 (1984), to determine whether an Indian tribe may have a live cause of action for a violation of its possessory rights that occurred 175 years ago. We hold that the Court of Appeals correctly so ruled.


The respondents in these cases are the direct descendants of members of the Oneida Indian Nation, one of the six nations of the Iroquois, the most powerful Indian Tribe in the Northeast at the time of the American Revolution. See B. Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (1972) (hereinafter Graymont). From time immemorial to shortly after the Revolution, the Oneidas inhabited what is now central New York State. Their aboriginal land was approximately six million acres, extending from the Pennsylvania border to the St. Lawrence River, from the shores of Lake Ontario to the western foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. See 434 F.Supp. at 533.

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Although most of the Iroquois sided with the British, the Oneidas actively supported the colonists in the Revolution. Ibid.; see also Graymont, supra. This assistance prevented the Iroquois from asserting a united effort against the colonists, and thus the Oneidas' support was of considerable aid. After the War, the United States recognized the importance of the Oneidas' role, and in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, 7 Stat. 15 (Oct. 22, 1784), the National Government promised that the Oneidas would be secure "in the possession [105 S.Ct. 1250] of the lands on which they are settled." Within a short period of time, the United States twice reaffirmed this promise,...

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