George Choate v. Trapp

Decision Date13 May 1912
Docket NumberNo. 809,809
Citation32 S.Ct. 565,56 L.Ed. 941,224 U.S. 665
PartiesGEORGE W. CHOATE et al., Plffs. in Err., v. M. F. TRAPP, Secretary of the State Board of Equalization, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Joseph W. Bailey, J. F. McMurray, and W. A. Ledbetter for plaintiffs in error.

Mr. Charles West, Attorney General of Oklahoma, for defendants in error.

[Syllabus from page 666 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice Lamar delivered the opinion of the court:

The eight thousand plaintiffs in this case are members of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes. Each of them holds a patent to 320 acres of allotted land issued under the terms of the Curtis act (30 Stat. at L. 507, chap. 517), which contained a provision 'that the land should be nontaxable' for a limited time. Before the expiration of that period the officers of the state of Oklahoma instituted proceedings with a view of assessing and collecting taxes on these lands lying within that state. The plaintiffs' application for an injunction was denied.

In order to understand the issues presented by the writ of error it is necessary to refer, as briefly as possible, to certain well-known facts, and to material portions of lengthy statutes, under which the tribal property of the Choctaws and Chickasaws was divided in severalty among their members.

The Five Civilized Tribes owned immense tracts of land in territory that is now embraced within the limits of the state of Oklahoma. The legal title was in the Tribes for the common use of their members. But the fact that so extensive an area was held under a system that did not recognize private property in land presented a serious obstacle to the creation of the state which Congress desired to organize for the government and development of that part of the country. And, with a view of removing these difficulties, it provided (27 Stat. at L. 645, chap. 209) for the appointment of the Dawes Commission, authorizing it to enter into negotiations with these Tribes for the extinguishment of their title, either by cession to the United States or by allotment, in severalty, among their members. As might have been anticipated, the commission found that many of the Indians were greatly opposed to any change. 'Some of them held passionately to their institutions from custom and patriotism, and others held with equal tenacity because of the advantages and privileges they enjoyed.' (20 H. R. Doc., 1903-04, p. 1.) After several years of negotiations their opposition was so far overcome that provisional agreements were made which contemplated most radical changes in the political and property rights of the Indians.

On April 23, 1897, the Dawes Commission and the Choctaw and Chickasaw representatives made what is known as the Atoka agreement. It was incorporated bodily into the Curtis act of June 28, 1898 (30 Stat. at L. 505, chap. 517), and was modified by the act of July, 1902 (32 Stat. at L. 657, chap. 1362).

These two acts, containing what is known as the Atoka agreement and the supplemental agreement, provided that Indian laws and courts should be at once abolished; that there should be an enrolment of all the members of the tribes; and that the members of the two tribes should become citizens of the United States.

It was also provided, as appears from extracts copied in the margin,1 that each member of the tribe should have allotted to him his share of the land—all of which 'shall be nontaxable while the title remains in the original allottee;' that a part of the land could be sold after one year and all of it sold after five years; that the patents issued to the allottee 'should be framed in conformity with the provisions of the agreement;' and that the acceptance of such patent should be operative as an assent on his part to the allotment of all land of the tribes, in accordance with the provisions of the agreement, and as a relinquishment of all his interest in other parts of the common property.

The complainant does not state when the plaintiffs received their patents, but the report of the Dawes Com- mission for the year ending June 1, 1904 (20 H. R. Doc. 27-42), shows that the enrolment and allotment had so far progressed as to make it fair to assume that most, if not all, of the patents had been issued, and that much of the land was alienable, and all of it was nontaxable when, on November 16, 1907, Oklahoma was admitted into the Union. The Constitution of that state provided that all existing rights should continue as if no change in government had taken place, and that property exempt from taxation by virtue of treaties and Federal laws should so remain during the force and effect of such treaties or Federal laws.

No taxes were assessed against the lands of the plaintiffs for the year 1907, but on May 27, 1908 (35 Stat. at L. 312, chap. 199), Congress passed a general act removing restrictions from the sale and encumbrance of land held by Indians of the class to which the plaintiffs belong. Another section provided that lands from which restrictions had been removed should be subject to taxation.

Thereupon proceedings were instituted by the state of Oklahoma with a view of assessing the plaintiffs' lands for taxes. This they sought to enjoin, but their complaint was dismissed on demurrer. The case was carried to the supreme court of the state, which held that Oklahoma was not a party to any contract with the Indians; that the United States, by virtue of its governmental power over the Indians, could have substituted title in severalty for ownership in common without plaintiffs' consent, and that, for want of a consideration, the provision that the land should be nontaxable was not a contract, but a mere gratuity which could be withdrawn at will. The court thereupon overruled plaintiffs' contention that they had a vested right of exemption which prevented the state from taxing the land at this time, and dismissed their suit.

1. There are many cases, some of which are cited in the opinion of the supreme court of Oklahoma (Thomas v Gay, 169 U. S. 271, 42 L. ed. 743, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 340; Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, 187 U. S. 565, 47 L. ed. 306, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 216), recognizing that the plenary power of Congress over the Indian Tribes and tribal property cannot be limited by treaties so as to prevent repeal or amendment by a later statute. The Tribes have been regarded as dependent nations, and treaties with them have been looked upon not as contracts, but as public laws which could be abrogated at the will of the United States.

This sovereign and plenary power was exercised and retained in all the dealings and legislation under which the lands of the Choctaws and Chickasaws were divided in severalty among the members of the Tribes. For, although the Atoka agreement is in the form of a contract, it is still an integral part of the Curtis act, and, if not a treaty, is a public law relating to tribal property, and as such was amendable and repealable at the will of Congress. But there is a broad distinction between tribal property and private property, and between the power to abrogate a statute and the authority to destroy rights acquired under such law. Reichart v. Felps, 6 Wall. 160, 18 L. ed. 849. The question in this case, therefore, is not whether the plaintiffs were parties to the Atoka agreement, but whether they had not acquired rights under the Curtis act which are now protected by the Constitution of the United States.

2. The individual Indian had no title or enforceable right in the tribal property. But as one of those entitled to occupy the land, he did have an equitable interest, which Congress recognized, and which it desired to have satisfied and extinguished. The Curtis act was framed with a view of having every such claim satisfactorily settled. And though it provided for a division of the land in severalty, it offered a patent of nontaxable land only to those who would relinquish their claim in the other property of the Tribe formerly held for their common use. For the Atoka agreement, after declaring that 'all land allotted should be nontaxable,' stipulated further that each enrolled member of the Tribes should receive a patent framed in conformity with the agreement, and that each Choctaw and Chickasaw who accepted such patent should be held thereby to assent to the terms of this agreement, and to relinquish all of his right in the property formerly held in common.

There was here, then, an offer of nontaxable land. Acceptance by the party to whom the offer was made, with consequent relinquishment of all claim to other lands, furnished a part of the consideration, if, indeed, any was needed, in such a case, to support either the grant or the exemption. Wisconsin & M. R. Co. v. Powers, 191 U. S. 386, 48 L. ed. 231, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 107; Home of the Friendless v. Rouse, 8 Wall. 437, 19 L. ed. 497; Tomlinson v. Jessup, 15 Wall. 458, 21 L. ed. 205. Upon delivery of the patent the agreement was executed, and the Indian was thereby vested with all the right conveyed by the patent, and, like a grantee in a deed poll, or a person accepting the benefit of a conveyance, bound by its terms, although it was not actually signed by him. Keller v. Ashford, 133 U. S. 621, 33 L. ed. 672, 10 Sup. Ct. Rep. 494; Hendrick v. Lindsay, 93 U. S. 143, 23 L. ed. 855.

As the plaintiffs were offered the allotments on the conditions proposed; as they accepted the terms, and, in the relinquishment of their claim, furnished a consideration which was sufficient to entitle them to enforce whatever rights were conferred, we are brought to a consideration of the question as to what those rights were.

3. On the part of the state it is argued that there was, in fact, no tax exemption, but that that provision was only intended to guard absolutely against alienation of the land, whether for taxes, or at judicial sale, or by private contract. In other words, it is said that the tax exemption was only an additional...

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