JONES V. MEEHAN, 175 U. S. 1 (1899)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Jones v. Meehan, 175 U.S. 1 (1899)

Jones v. Meehan

No. 7

Argued April 27-28, 1898

Decided October 30, 1899

175 U.S. 1


A good title to parts of the lands of an Indian tribe may be granted to individuals by a treaty between the United States and the tribe, without any act of Congress, or any patent from the Executive authority of the United States. The question in every case is whether the terms of the treaty are such as to manifest the intention of the parties to make a present grant to the persons named.

A treaty between the United States and an Indian tribe must be construed not according to the technical meaning of its words to learned lawyers, but in the sense in which they would naturally be understood by the Indians.

When the United States, in a treaty with an Indian tribe, and as part of the consideration for the cession by the tribe of a tract of country to the United States, make a reservation to a chief or other member of the tribe of a specified number of sections of land, whether already identified or to be surveyed and located in the future, the treaty itself converts the reserved sections into individual property; the reservation, unless accompanied by words limiting its effect, is equivalent to a present grant of a complete title in fee simple, and that title is alienable by the grantee at his pleasure, unless the United States, by a provision of the treaty, or of an act of Congress, have expressly or impliedly prohibited or restricted its alienation.

Page 175 U. S. 2

The effect of the Treaty of October 2, 1863, between the United States and the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians, by which those bands ceded to the United States all their right, title and interest in a large tract of country, and by which

"there shall be set apart from the tract .hereby ceded a reservation of six hundred and forty acres near the mouth of the Thief River for the chief Moose Dung"

was to grant him an alienable title in fee in the quantity of land at the designated place, subject only to its selection in due form and to the definition of its boundaries by survey and patent.

The right of inheritance at the time of the death of the grantee in 1872 in land granted in fee by the United States by an Indian treaty to a member of an Indian tribe, whose tribal organization was still recognized by the government of the United States, is controlled by the laws, usages and customs of the tribe, and not by the law of the state in which the land lies, nor by any action of the Secretary of the Interior.

The construction of treaties is the peculiar province of the judiciary, and, except in cases purely political, Congress has no constitutional power to settle the rights under a treaty or to affect titles already granted by the treaty itself.

The case is stated in the opinion.

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