502 U.S. 251 (1991), County of Yakima v. Confederated Tribes &

Citation:502 U.S. 251, 112 S.Ct. 683, 116 L.Ed.2d 687, 60 U.S.L.W. 4067
Party Name:County of Yakima v. Confederated Tribes &
Case Date:January 14, 1992
Court:United States Supreme Court

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502 U.S. 251 (1991)

112 S.Ct. 683, 116 L.Ed.2d 687, 60 U.S.L.W. 4067

County of Yakima


Confederated Tribes &

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 14, 1992




Yakima County, Washington, imposes an ad valorem levy on taxable real property within its jurisdiction and an excise tax on sales of such land. The County proceeded to foreclose on various properties for which these taxes were past due, including certain fee-patented lands held by the Yakima Indian Nation or its members on the Tribe's reservation within the County. Contending that federal law prohibited the imposition or collection of the taxes on such lands, the Tribe filed suit for declaratory and injunctive relief and was awarded summary judgment by the District Court. The Court of Appeals agreed that the excise tax was impermissible, but held that the ad valorem tax would be impermissible only if it would have a "`demonstrably serious'" impact on the Tribe's "`political integrity, economic security or . . . health and welfare'" (quoting Brendale v. Confederated Yakima Indian Nation, 492 U.S. 408, 431 (opinion of WHITE, J.)), and remanded to the District Court for that determination.

Held: The Indian General Allotment Act of 1887 permits Yakima County to impose an ad valorem tax on reservation land patented in fee pursuant to the Act and owned by reservation Indians or the Yakima Indian Nation itself, but does not allow the County to enforce its excise tax on sales of such land. Pp. 257-270.

(a) As the Court held in Goudy v. Meath, 203 U.S. 146, 149, the Indian General Allotment Act authorizes taxation of fee-patented land. This determination was explicitly confirmed in a 1906 amendment to the Act, known as the Burke Act, which includes a proviso authorizing the Secretary of the Interior, "whenever . . . satisfied that any [Indian] allottee is competent . . . [,] to . . . issu[e] to such allottee a patent in fee [112 S.Ct. 685] simple," and provides that "thereafter all restrictions as to . . . taxation of said land shall be removed." (Emphasis added). Thus, the Indian General Allotment Act contains the unmistakably clear expression of intent that

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is necessary to authorize state taxation of Indian lands. See, e.g., Montana v. Blackfeet Tribe of Indians, 471 U.S. 759, 765. The contention of the Tribe and the United States that this explicit statutory conferral of taxing power has been repudiated by subsequent Indian legislation rests upon a misunderstanding of this Court's precedents, particularly Moe v. Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, 425 U.S. 463, and a misperception of the structure of the Indian General Allotment Act. Pp. 257-266.

(b) Because, under state law, liability for the ad valorem tax flows exclusively from ownership of realty on the annual assessment date, and the tax creates a burden on the property alone, this tax constitutes "taxation of . . . land" within the meaning of the Indian General Allotment Act, and is therefore prima facie valid. Nevertheless, Brendale, supra, and its reasoning are inapplicable to the present case, which involves an asserted restriction on a State's congressionally conferred powers over Indians, rather than a proposed extension of a tribe's inherent powers over the conduct of non-Indians on reservation fee lands. Moreover, application of a balancing test under Brendale would contravene the per se approach traditionally followed by this Court in the area of state taxation of tribes and tribal members, under which taxation is categorically allowed or disallowed, as appropriate, depending exclusively upon whether it has in fact been authorized by Congress. Pp. 266-268.

(c) However, the excise tax on sales of fee-patented reservation land cannot be sustained. The Indian General Allotment Act explicitly authorizes only "taxation of . . . land," not "taxation with respect to land," "taxation of transactions involving land," or "taxation based on the value of land." Because it is eminently reasonable to interpret that language as not including a tax upon the activity of selling real estate, this Court's cases require that that interpretation be applied for the benefit of the Tribe. See, e.g., Blackfeet Tribe, supra, at 766. Pp. 268-270.

(d) The factual question whether the parcels at issue were patented under the Indian General Allotment Act or some other federal allotment statute, and the legal question whether it makes any difference, are left for resolution on remand. Pp. 270.

903 F.2d 1207 (CA9 1990), affirmed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 270.

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SCALIA, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented by these consolidated cases is whether the County of Yakima may impose an ad valorem tax on so-called "fee-patented" land located within the Yakima Indian Reservation, and an excise tax on sales of such land.



In the late 19th Century, the prevailing national policy of segregating lands for the [112 S.Ct. 686] exclusive use and control of the

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Indian tribes gave way to a policy of allotting those lands to tribe members individually. The objectives of allotment were simple and clear-cut: to extinguish tribal sovereignty, erase reservation boundaries, and force the assimilation of Indians into the society at large. See, e.g., In re Heff, 197 U.S. 488, 499 (1905). Congress was selective at first, allotting lands under differing approaches on a tribe-by-tribe basis. See F. Cohen, Handbook of Federal Indian Law 129-130 (1982); Gates, Indian Allotments Preceding the Dawes Act, in The Frontier Challenge 141 (J. Clark ed.1971). These early efforts were marked by failure, however. Because allotted land could be sold soon after it was received, see, e.g., Treaty with the Wyandots, Apr. 1, 1850, 9 Stat. 987, 992, many of the early allottees quickly lost their land through transactions that were unwise or even procured by fraud. See Cohen, supra, at 130. Even if sales were for fair value, Indian allottees divested of their land were deprived of an opportunity to acquire agricultural and other self-sustaining economic skills, thus compromising Congress' purpose of assimilation.

Congress sought to solve these problems in the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, 24 Stat. 388, as amended, 25 U.S.C. § 331 et seq., which empowered the President to allot most tribal lands nationwide without the consent of the Indian nations involved. The Dawes Act restricted immediate alienation or encumbrance by providing that each allotted parcel would be held by the United States in trust for a period of 25 years or longer; only then would a fee patent issue to the Indian allottee. 24 Stat. 389; see United States v. Mitchell, 445 U.S. 535, 543-544 (1980). Section 6 of the Act furthered Congress' goal of assimilation by providing that

each and every member of the respective bands or tribes of Indians to whom allotments have been made shall have the benefit of and be subject to the laws, both civil and criminal, of the State or Territory in which they may reside.

24 Stat. 390.

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In In re Heff; supra, 197 U.S. at 502-503, we held that this latter provision subjected Indian allottees to plenary state jurisdiction immediately upon issuance of a trust patent (and prior to the expiration of the 25-year trust period). Congress promptly altered that disposition in the Burke Act of 1906, 34 Stat. 182, decreeing that state civil and criminal jurisdiction would lie "[a]t the expiration of the trust period . . . when the lands have been conveyed to the Indians by patent in fee." A proviso, however, gave the President authority, when he found an allottee "competent and capable of managing his or her affairs," to "issu[e] . . . a patent in fee simple" prior to the expiration of the relevant trust period. Upon such a premature patenting, the proviso specified (significantly for present purposes) not that the patentee would be subject to state civil and criminal jurisdiction, but that "all restrictions as to sale, incumbrance, or taxation of said land shall be removed." Id. at 183.

The policy of allotment came to an abrupt end in 1934 with passage of the Indian Reorganization Act. See 48 Stat. 984, 25 U.S.C. § 461 et seq. Returning to the principles of tribal self-determination and self-governance which had characterized the pre-Dawes Act era, Congress halted further allotments and extended indefinitely the existing periods of trust applicable to already allotted (but not yet fee-patented) Indian lands. See 25 U.S.C. §§ 461, 462. In addition, the Act provided for restoring unallotted surplus Indian lands to tribal ownership, see 25 U.S.C. § 463, and for acquiring, on behalf of the tribes, lands "within or without existing reservations." 25 U.S.C. § 465. Except by authorizing reacquisition of allotted lands in trust, however, Congress made no attempt to undo the dramatic effects of the allotment years on the ownership of former Indian lands. It neither imposed restraints on the ability of Indian allottees to alienate [112 S.Ct. 687] or encumber their fee-patented lands nor impaired the rights of those non-Indians who had acquired title to over two-thirds of the Indian lands allotted

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under the Dawes Act. See W. Washburn, Red Man's Land/White Man's Law 145 (1971).

The Yakima Indian Reservation, which was established by treaty in 1855, see Treaty between the United States and Yakima Nation of Indians, 12 Stat. 951, covers approximately 1.3 million acres in southeastern Washington State. Eighty percent of the reservation's land is held by the United States in trust for the...

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