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U.S. Supreme Court

Northern Cheyenne Tribe v. Hollowbreast, 425 U.S. 649 (1976)

Northern Cheyenne Tribe v. Hollowbreast

No. 75-145

Argued March 29, 1976

Decided May 19, 1976

425 U.S. 649


Section 3 of the Northern Cheyenne Allotment Act of 1926 (Act) reserves coal and other mineral deposits underlying lands on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation for the Tribe's benefit, but further provides that, 50 years after approval of the Act, such deposits "shall become the property of the respective allottees or their heirs," and that the "unallotted lands" shall be "subject to the control and management thereof as Congress may deem expedient for the benefit of said Indians." In 1968, Congress amended the Act to reserve the mineral rights "in perpetuity for the benefit of the Tribe," subject to a prior judicial determination that the allottees had not been granted vested rights to the mineral deposits by the Act. As authorized by the 1968 amendment, the Tribe brought suit against the allottees to determine whether the allottees, or their heirs or devisees, had received a vested property right in the minerals under the Act. The District Court held that the Act did not grant the allottees vested rights in the mineral deposits, construing "unallotted lands" in § 3 as including such deposits. The Court of Appeals reversed, construing § 3 as an unconditional, noncontingent grant of the mineral deposits to the allottees, in the absence of any express statement of Congress' intent to retain power over the deposits.

Held: The Act did not give the allottees of surface lands vested rights in the mineral deposits underlying those lands. This reading of the Act is supported by its legislative history, which indicates a congressional intent to sever the surface estate from the interest in the minerals and no intent to grant allottees a vested future interest in the mineral deposits, and thereby relinquish "control and management thereof as Congress may deem expedient for the benefit of said Indians." Such conclusion is also supported by the fact that the agency charged with executing the Act construed it as not granting the allottees any vested rights. Pp. 425 U. S. 654-660.

505 F.2d 268, reversed.

Page 425 U. S. 650

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 425 U. S. 660.

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