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U.S. Supreme Court

Cherokee Nation v. Hitchcock, 187 U.S. 294 (1902)

Cherokee Nation v. Hitchcock

No. 340

Submitted October 23, 1902

Decided December 1, 1902

187 U.S. 294


In an action brought by the Cherokee Nation to enjoin the Secretary of the Interior from leasing oil lands held for the benefit of said Nation under section 13 of the Act of Congress approved June 20, 1898, it is not necessary to join as parties defendants the persons or corporations to whom the Secretary proposes to make the leases.

The Act of Congress entitled "An act for the protection of the people of the Indian Territory, and for other purposes," approved June 28, 1898, which by section 13 thereof gives the Secretary of the Interior exclusive power over oil, coal, asphalt and other minerals in said territory, and authorizes him to make leases of oil, coal, asphalt and other minerals

Page 187 U. S. 295

under certain prescribed conditions, the royalties and rents to be paid into the Treasury of the United States to the credit of the tribe to which they belong is, notwithstanding the provisions of the treaties with the Cherokee Nation, a valid exercise of power vested in Congress and fully authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to make such leases in the manner prescribed in the act.

This Court has already (Stephens v. Cherokee Nation, 174 U. S. 495) sustained the validity of the Act of Congress of June 28, 1898, and the precedent of co-relative legislation, wherein the United States practically assumed the full control over the Cherokees, as well as the other nations constituting the five civilized tribes, and took upon itself the determination of membership in the tribes for the purpose of adjusting their rights in the tribal properties. That decision necessarily involves the further holding that Congress is vested with authority to adopt measures to make the tribal property productive and secure therefrom an income for the benefit of the tribe.

Under the treaties with, and patents issued to, the Cherokee Nation, whatever of title has been conveyed has been to the Cherokees as a Nation. And no title to any land is in any of the individuals, although held by the tribe for the common use and equal benefit of all the members.

This Court is not concerned with the question whether the Act of June 28, 1898, is wise or will operate beneficially to the interest of the Cherokees, as the power which exists in Congress to administer upon, and guard, the tribal property is political and administrative in its nature, and the manner of its exercise is a question within the province of the legislative branch to determine, and is not one for the courts.

This cause was begun on the equity side of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. The complainants named in the bill were the Cherokee Nation, and its principal chief and treasurer and sundry other citizens of the nation, suing on behalf of themselves and of citizens of the nation residing in the Indian Territory. Ethan A. Hitchcock, as Secretary of the Interior, was made sole defendant. It was claimed in the bill that, by virtue of certain treaties and a patent based thereon, the Cherokee Nation was vested with a fee simple title to its tribal lands in the Indian Territory, and it was also averred that, by a treaty executed in 1835, there was secured to the nation the right, by its national council, to make and carry into effect all such laws as the Cherokees might deem necessary for the government and protection of the persons and property within their own country belonging to their people, or such persons as had connected themselves with them. A synopsis

Page 187 U. S. 296

of the pertinent portions of the treaties above referred to is set out in the margin. *

Page 187 U. S. 297

The patent referred to in the bill was executed on December 31, 1838. It conveyed to the Cherokee Nation the lands secured and guaranteed by the treaties of 1828, 1833, and 1835.

Page 187 U. S. 298

In the patent the seven million-acre tract, together with the perpetual outlet, was described as one tract, aggregating 13,574,135.14 acres. In addition the patent specified the boundaries of a tract of eight hundred thousand acres ceded by the treaty of 1835. The description of the two tracts was succeeded by the following habendum clause:

"Therefore, in execution of the agreements and stipulations contained in the said several treaties, the United States have given and granted, and by these presents do give and grant, unto the said Cherokee Nation the two tracts of land so surveyed and hereinbefore described, containing in the whole fourteen millions, three hundred and seventy-four thousand, one hundred and thirty-five acres, and fourteen-hundredths of an acre, to have and to hold the same, together with all the rights, privileges, and appurtenances thereto belonging to the said Cherokee Nation forever; subject, however, to the right of the United States to permit other tribes of red men to get salt on the salt plain on the western prairie referred to in the second article of the treaty of the twenty-ninth of December, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-five, which salt plain has been ascertained to be within the limits prescribed for the outlet agreed to be granted by said article, and subject also to all the other rights reserved to the United States, in and by the articles hereinbefore recited, to the extent and in the manner in which the said rights are so reserved, and subject also to the condition provided by the act of Congress of the twenty-eighth of May, one thousand eight hundred and thirty, referred to in the above-recited third article, and which condition is, that the lands hereby granted shall revert to the United States if the said Cherokee Nation becomes extinct or abandons the same."

Averring that the Cherokee Nation and its citizens possessed the exclusive right to the use, control, and occupancy of its tribal lands, it was alleged that the Secretary of the Interior, without having lawful authority so to do, was assuming the power to, and was about to, pass favorably upon applications for leases, and was about to grant leases of lands belonging to said nation for the purpose of mining for oil, gas, coal, and other minerals, one such successful applicant being stated to

Page 187 U. S. 299

be the Cherokee Oil & Gas Company, an Arkansas corporation. Based upon general allegations of the absence of an adequate remedy at law, the necessity of relief to avoid a multiplicity of suits and to prevent the casting of a cloud upon the title of the nation to its said lands, and the claim that irreparable injury would be caused and wrong and oppression result, and that there would be a deprivation of property rights of the complainants and of other citizens of the Cherokee Nation, an injunction was prayed against further action by the Secretary of the Interior in the premises. A demurrer was filed to the bill upon the grounds following:

"1. Said bill is bad in substance and for want of equity, and does not state facts sufficient to entitle complainants to the relief prayed for, or to any relief."

"2. The court has no jurisdiction over the subject matter of the suit."

"3. There is a defect of parties defendant."

Without considering or passing upon the objection of a defect of parties defendant, the trial court sustained the demurrer and entered a decree dismissing the bill of complaint. This decree was affirmed, on appeal, by the court of appeals of the District.

An appeal was thereupon taken to this Court.

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