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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Half-Century Wall Blocks Tribe’s Territory Claim

(CN) - The Paiute-Shoshone Indians cannot sue Los Angeles over a land dispute dating back to the 1930s because the tribe gave up its right to sue over the fishy land exchange 60 years ago, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday.

The federal appeals panel in San Francisco affirmed a lower court's dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the Paiute-Shoshone Indians of the Bishop Community of the Bishop Colony, who claimed that the United States illegally took their land in 1937 in an exchange with the city.

Members of the tribe had lived in the Owens Valley, now in California's Inyo County, for centuries when settlers began moving into the area in the late 19th century, according to the ruling.

To protect the tribe, the United States purchased about 1,030 acres of land in 1924 and held it in trust for the Bishop Colony. In 1937, the United States exchanged 3,126 acres - including the acreage held in trust for the tribe - with the city of Los Angeles for 1,511 acres of city land in the Owens Valley.

The tribe contends that this exchange was illegal. They claim that agents of the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs gathered 211 signatures of tribal members who allegedly approved the exchange, but that 187 of the signatures "were written on blank pieces of paper," according to the ruling, and that the remaining 24 signatures were "written on term sheets bearing a 'grossly insufficient description' of the particulars of the exchange."

The tribe also claims that the United States completed the exchange without attaching water rights to the land, and that "the parties had insufficient evidence from which to conclude that they were exchanging rights of equivalent value because the appraisals did not include the value of the water rights," the ruling states.

Nonetheless, the United States handed over the Bishop Colony land to the city in 1941 and barred tribal members from living there. In 2006, the tribe sued the city in Fresno, Calif., requesting an order ejecting the city from the land and restoring title to the Bishop Colony.

U.S. Senior District Judge Oliver Wanger dismissed the case, finding that the rules of procedure required tribe to have named the United States as a party but that the government could not join the case at that stage.

On appeal, the three-judge appeals panel agreed with the District Court, ruling that the United States could not now become a party to the suit because the tribe had given up its right to sue way back in 1951. The 1946 Indian Claims Commission Act (ICCA) created an executive tribunal to hear all tribal claims against the United States. Tribes had five years to file a claim, and any claim not filed within that period could never be raised again, the panel found.

"We hold that the United States cannot feasibly be joined in this action because the ICCA provided the exclusive remedy for plaintiff's claim but plaintiff failed to avail itself of that remedy," Judge Susan Graber wrote for the panel. "According to plaintiff's complaint, it had a ripe claim against the United States by 1941, when the United States finalized its land exchange with the city, yet plaintiff failed to file a claim with the commission before 1951, the year in which the ICCA's statute of limitations expired. In those circumstances, the ICCA states unequivocally that no court may adjudicate plaintiff's claim. The District Court therefore lacks jurisdiction over plaintiff's untimely claim against the United States."

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