MONTANA V. UNITED STATES, 450 U. S. 544 (1981)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544 (1981)

Montana v. United States

No. 79-1128

Argued December 3, 1980

Decided March 24, 1981

450 U.S. 544


By a tribal regulation, the Crow Tribe of Montana sought to prohibit hunting and fishing within its reservation by anyone who is not a member of the Tribe. Relying on its purported ownership of the bed of the Big Horn River, on treaties which created its reservation, and on its inherent power as a sovereign, the Tribe claimed authority to prohibit hunting and fishing by nonmembers of the Tribe even on lands within the reservation owned in fee simple by non-Indians. Montana, however, continued to assert its authority to regulate hunting and fishing by non-Indians within the reservation. The First Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851, in which the signatory tribes acknowledged various designated lands as their respective territories, specified that, by making the treaty, the tribes did not "surrender the privilege of hunting, fishing, or passing over" any of the lands in dispute. In 1868, the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie established the Crow Reservation, including land through which the Big Horn River flows, and provided that the reservation "shall be . . . set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" of the Tribe, and that no non-Indians except Government agents "shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in" the reservation. To resolve the conflict between the Tribe and the State, the United States, proceeding in its own right and as fiduciary for the Tribe, filed the present action, seeking a declaratory judgment quieting title to the riverbed in the United States as trustee for the Tribe and establishing that the Tribe and the United States have sole authority to regulate hunting and fishing within the reservation, and an injunction requiring Montana to secure the Tribe's permission before issuing hunting or fishing licenses for use within the reservation. The District Court denied relief, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It held that the bed and banks of the river were held by the United States in trust for the Tribe; that the Tribe could regulate hunting and fishing within the reservation by nonmembers, except for hunting and fishing on fee lands by resident nonmember owners of those lands; and that nonmembers permitted by the Tribe to hunt or fish within the reservation remained subject to Montana's fish and game laws.


1. Title to the bed of the Big Horn River passed to Montana upon

Page 450 U. S. 545

its admission into the Union, the United States not having conveyed beneficial ownership of the riverbed to the Crow Tribe by the treaties of 1851 or 1868. As a general principle, the Federal Government holds lands under navigable waters in trust for future States, to be granted to such States when they enter the Union, and there is a strong presumption against conveyance of such lands by the United States. The 1851 treaty failed to overcome t.his presumption, since it did not, by its terms, formally convey any land to the Indians at all. And whatever property rights the 1868 treaty created, its language is not strong enough to overcome the presumption against the sovereign's conveyance of the riverbed. Cf. United States v. Holt State Bank, 270 U. S. 49. Moreover, the situation of the Crow Indians at the time of the treaties presented no "public exigency" which would have required Congress to depart from its policy of reserving ownership of beds under navigable waters for the future States. Pp. 450 U. S. 550-557.

2. Although the Tribe may prohibit or regulate hunting or fishing by nonmembers on land belonging to the Tribe or held by the United States in trust for the Tribe, it has no power to regulate non-Indian fishing and hunting on reservation land owned in fee by nonmembers of the Tribe. Pp. 450 U. S. 557-567.

(a) The 1851 treaty nowhere suggested that Congress intended to grant such power to the Tribe. And while the 1868 treaty obligated the United States to prohibit most non-Indians from residing on or passing through reservation lands used and occupied by the Tribe, thereby arguably conferring upon the Tribe authority to control fishing and hunting on those lands, that authority can only extend to land on which the Tribe exercises "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation," and cannot apply to subsequently alienated lands held in fee by non-Indians. Cf. Puyallup Tribe v. Washington Game Dept., 433 U. S. 165. Nor does the federal trespass statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1165, which prohibits trespassing to hunt or fish, "augment" the Tribe's regulatory powers over non-Indian lands. That statute is limited to lands owned by Indians, held in trust by the United States for Indians, or reserved for use by Indians, and Congress deliberately excluded fee-patented lands from its scope. Pp. 450 U. S. 557-563.

(b) The Tribe's "inherent sovereignty" does not support its regulation of non-Indian hunting and fishing on non-Indian lands within the reservation. Through their original incorporation into the United States, as well as through specific treaties and statutes, the Indian tribes have lost many of the attributes of sovereignty, particularly as to the relations between a tribe and nonmembers of the tribe. United States v. Wheeler, 435 U. S. 313. Exercise of tribal power beyond what

Page 450 U. S. 546

is necessary to protect tribal self-government or to control internal relations is inconsistent with the dependent status of the tribes, and so cannot survive without express congressional delegation. Here, regulation of hunting and fishing by nonmembers of the Tribe on lands no longer owned by the Tribe bears no clear relationship to tribal self-government or internal relations. Non-Indian hunters and fishermen on non-Indian fee land do not enter any agreements or dealings with the Tribe so as to subject themselves to tribal civil jurisdiction. And nothing suggests that such non-Indian hunting and fishing so threaten the Tribe's political or economic security as to justify tribal regulation. Pp. 450 U. S. 563-567.

604 F.2d 1162, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 450 U. S. 567. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 450 U. S. 569.

Page 450 U. S. 547

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