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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Dismissal Was Too Final in Suit Over Indian Land

(CN) - A Native American tribe should be allowed to amend its claims that Wyoming improperly levied vehicle and excise taxes in Indian country, the 10th Circuit ruled.

The Northern Arapaho sued three Wyoming state and county officials in 2008, claiming that they had taxed tribe members in contravention of a state Supreme Court ruling that established the Wind River Indian Reservation as "Indian country."

The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone share interest in the Wind River Reservation established in 1868 through a treaty between the Eastern Shoshone and the U.S. government.

In exchange for about 3 million acres of Wyoming land, the Eastern Shoshone handed over about 44 million acres in Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming.

The federal government moved the Northern Arapaho on the reservation in 1878, without the Eastern Shoshone's consent.

U.S. Indian Inspector James McLaughlin signed an agreement to open an additional 1.4 million acres of the tribes' land to settlement in exchange for sale proceeds and other benefits in 1904, which public law finalized in 1905.

The size of the reservation has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s, but some land ceded in the transaction was never formally restored to the tribes.

The Northern Arapaho claim the cession did not affect the land's status as Indian country. It also claims that the principles of collateral estoppel bar the state from relitigating the issue, saying that the Wyoming Supreme Court conclusively decided the status of the entire area with Big Horn I, a case that established the priority of water rights along the Big Horn River in 1988.

Though the Eastern Shoshone and federal government were briefly added to the Northern Arapaho's action, they won dismissal through sovereign immunity. State officials, in response, claimed that the third-party defendants were "indispensable" because the case could not "in equity and good conscience" proceed without them.

A federal judge dismissed the action with prejudice for failure to join a party after finding that the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and U.S. government were necessary parties that could not feasibly be joined, and in whose absence the action could not proceed.

The court also disputed whether Big Horn I "conclusively" determined the status of the land.

A three-judge appellate panel in Denver vacated that judgment last week and remanded the action with instructions to dismiss it without prejudice.

"Although we hold that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the action on indispensable-party grounds, the district court's disposition was not an adjudication on the merits," Senior Circuit Judge David Ebel wrote for the court. "Thus, dismissal of the action should have been without prejudice, and without preclusive effect."

The appeals court expressed no opinion on the preclusive effect of Big Horn I and denied the Northern Arapaho's motion for summary disposition or remand.

"We find no abuse of discretion in the district court's dismissal of the action on the grounds that the Eastern Shoshone was an indispensable party, and therefore affirm," the 24-page ruling states. "But we vacate the judgment to the extent that it dismissed the action with prejudice, and remand with instructions to dismiss the action without prejudice."

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