Poafpybitty v. Skelly Oil Company, 65

Decision Date18 March 1968
Docket NumberNo. 65,65
Citation390 U.S. 365,88 S.Ct. 982,19 L.Ed.2d 1238
PartiesFrank P. POAFPYBITTY et al., Petitioners, v. SKELLY OIL COMPANY
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Charles Hill Johns, Midwest City, Okl., for petitioners.

John H. Cantrell, Oklahoma City, Okl., for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether petitioners, who are Comanche Indians, have standing to sue under an oil and gas lease approved by the Department of the Interior for use on land held by Indians under trust patents issued by the United States.

In 1947 the Acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs approved an oil and gas lease which petitioners had executed to respondent, Skelly Oil Company, on the form prescribed by the Department of the Interior. The first well was drilled in 1956, and seven producing wells were soon completed. In 1961 petitioners retained counsel with the approval of the Department of the Interior1 and brought this damage action against respondent in the District Court of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, alleging that respondent had breached the express and implied covenants in the lease and had thereby impaired petitioners' royalties. Respondent notified the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the litigation, but the Government made no attempt to intervene in the proceedings. The petition filed in the District Court asserted that respondent had permitted natural gas being produced from the wells to escape despite the fact that there was a pipeline less than a mile from the land. 2 Petitioners claimed that respondent ignored their request that the gas be marketed and continued to allow the gas to be wasted in violation of the terms of the lease.3 The District Court sustained re- spondent's demurrer and dismissed the petition. The Supreme Court of Oklahoma affirmed on the ground that petitioners were precluded from suing by the provisions of the lease and by the regulations promulgated by the Secretary of the Interior to control oil and gas leases on restricted Indian land.4 We granted certiorari, 389 U.S. 814, 88 S.Ct. 30, 19 L.Ed.2d 64 (1967), to determine whether the federal restrictions imposed on the Indians prevented them from vindicating their rights. In our view, the decision below unduly restricts the right of the Indians to seek judicial relief for a claimed injury to their interests under the oil and gas lease.

The trust patents to the land in question were issued to petitioners under the General Allotment Act of 1887, 24 Stat. 388, as amended, 25 U.S.C. §§ 331—358, which provided that individual Indians were to be allotted land on their reservations5 and that the United States was to hold the land 'in trust for the sole use and benefit of the Indian' allottees for a 25-year period. 25 U.S.C. § 348. During the trust period, which has been repeatedly extended, 6 restricted Indian land may be sold or leased only with the consent of the Secretary of the Interior. In our view, these restrictions on the Indian's control of his land are mere incidents of the promises made by the United States in various treaties to protect Indian land and have no effect on the Indian's capacity to institute the court action necessary to protect his property. In order to fulfill these national promises to safeguard Indian land and at the same time 'to prepare the Indians to take their place as independent, qualified members of the modern body politic,' Board of County Comm'rs of Creek County v. Seber, 318 U.S. 705, 715, 63 S.Ct. 920, 926, 87 L.Ed. 1094 (1943), the allotment system was created with the Indians receiving ownership rights in the land while the United States retained the power to scrutinize the various transactions by which the Indian might be separated from that property. Squire v. Capoeman, 351 U.S. 1, 9, 76 S.Ct. 611, 100 L.Ed. 883 (1956). See, e.g., 18 Cong.Rec. 190—192 (1886). This dual purpose of the allotment system would be frustrated unless both the Indian and the United States were empowered to seek judicial relief to protect the allotment. The obligation and power of the United States to institute such litigation to aid the Indian in the protection of his rights in his allotment were recognized in United States v. Rickert, 188 U.S. 432, 23 S.Ct. 478, 47 L.Ed. 532 (1903); Heckman v. United States, 224 U.S. 413, 32 S.Ct. 424, 56 L.Ed. 820 (1912); and United States v. Candelaria, 271 U.S. 432, 46 S.Ct. 561, 70 L.Ed. 1023 (1926). See generally Federal Indian Law 326—341 (Dept. of Interior, 1958). In Heckman, an action brought by the United States to set aside an improper conveyance of restricted land, this Court realized that the allotment system created interests in both the Indian and the United States.7 'A transfer of the allotments is not simply a violation of the proprietary rights of the Indian. It violates the governmental rights of the United States.' 224 U.S., at 438, 32 S.Ct. at 432.

In holding that the United States could sue to protect the allotment, the Court indicated that the Government could either bring the necessary suit itself or allow the litigation to be prosecuted by the Indian.

'In what cases the United States will undertake to represent Indian owners of restricted lands in suits of this sort is left under the acts of Congress to the discretion of the Executive Department. The allottee may be permitted to bring his own action, or if so brought, the United States may aid him in its conduct * * *. And when the United States itself undertakes to represent the allottees of lands under restriction and brings suit to cancel prohibited transfers, such action necessarily precludes the prosecution by the allottees of any other suit for a similar purpose relating to the same property.' Id., at 446, 32 S.Ct. at 435.

Later decisions followed the implications of Heckman and held that the right of the United States to institute a suit to protect the allotment did not diminish the Indian's right to sue on his own behalf. In Creek Nation v. United States, 318 U.S. 629, 63 S.Ct. 784, 87 L.Ed. 1046 (1943), this Court held that Indian tribes had the power to sue a railroad for the improper use of Indian land even though the tribes could not sue the United States for its failure to collect the sums allegedly due.8 The Court stated, 'That the United States also had a right to sue did not necessarily preclude the tribes from bringing their own actions.' Id., at 640, 63 S.Ct. at 790. Accord, Lane v. Pueblo of Santa Rosa, 249 U.S. 110, 39 S.Ct. 185, 63 L.Ed. 504 (1919); Skokomish Indian Tribe v. France, 269 F.2d 555 (C.A. 9th Cir. 1959). Nor does the existence of the Government's power to sue affect the rights of the individual Indian.9 'A restricted Indian is not without capacity to sue or to be sued with respect to his affairs, including his restricted property. * * * Both the act of April 12, 1926 and the decision * * * in Heckman v. United States * * * recognize capacity in a restricted Indian to sue or defend actions in his own behalf subject only to the right of the Government to intervene.' Sadler v. Public Nat. Bank & Trust Co., 172 F.2d 870, 874 (C.A.10th Cir. 1949). And in Choctaw & Chickasaw Nations v. Seitz, 193 F.2d 456, 459 (C.A.10th Cir. 1951), the court stated that Heckman, supra, Lane, supra, and Candelaria, supra, 'clearly recognized the rights of restricted Indians and Indian tribes or pueblos to maintain actions with respect to their lands, although the United States would not be bound by the judgment in such an action, to which it was not a party, brought by the restricted Indian or an Indian tribe or pueblo.' In Brown v. Anderson, 61 Okl. 136, 160 P. 724 (1916), the Oklahoma Supreme Court itself held that Heckman had 'fully answered' the argument that only the United States as guardian of the Indian could bring a suit to cancel an improper conveyance of a restricted Indian allotment. The court held:

'Osborne Anderson, the defendant in error, although a full-blood Indian, was a citizen of the United States and of the state of Oklahoma. No good reason appears why he should be denied the privilege of appealing to the courts of the state the same as any other citizen to enforce his rights to property, even though such property be land upon which restrictions against alienation have been imposed by an act of Congress.' 61 Okl., at 138—139, 160 P., at 726.

See Bell v. Fitzpatrick, 53 Okl. 574, 157 P. 334 (1916); L. Mills, Oklahoma Indian Land Laws § 328 (1924). We agree that the federal restrictions preventing the Indian from selling or leasing his allotted land without the consent of a governmental official do not prevent the Indian landowner, like other property owners, from maintaining suits appropriate to the protection of his rights.

There remains the question whether the terms of the oil and gas lease or the regulations promulgated by the Secretary of the Interior to govern those leases prevent the Indians from seeking judicial relief for an alleged impairment of their interests under the lease. Respondent argues that the Secretary has such complete control over the lease that only he can institute the necessary court action.

The leasing of allotted land for mining purposes 'by said allottee' is expressly authorized by 25 U.S.C. § 396. Although the approval of the Secretary is required, he is not the lessor and he cannot grant the lease on his own authority.10 The Secretary is authorized to promulgate regulations controlling the operation and development of the lease and to issue necessary written instructions to the lessee. Ibid. See generally 25 CFR §§ 172.1 172.33 (1967); 30 CFR §§ 221.1—221.67 (1967). The lessee is required to furnish a surety bond, in an amount satisfactory to the Secretary, guaranteeing compliance with the terms of the lease, which incorporate the regulations of the Secretary. 25 U.S.C. § 396c. The Secretary has the power to inspect the leased premises and the books and...

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