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Saturday, May 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Indian Tribe May Collect on 150-Year-Old Trust

(CN) - The descendants of a Minnesota Indian tribe that was loyal to the U.S. government during the 1862 Sioux Uprising were unfairly deprived of benefits from three tracts of tribal land, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled.

Judge Charles Lettow rejected the government's argument that appropriations laws passed by Congress in 1980 trumped the Mdewakanton Sioux's right to funds that originated from a trust created in the late 1800s.

"Fairly interpreted, in light of the historical record and 90 years of the department's own legal opinions and actions, the appropriations acts are reasonably amenable to the reading that they created a money-mandating duty on the part of the government to the lineal descendants of the loyal Mdewakanton," Lettow wrote.

The government set aside the funds for the Mdewakanton as a reward for their help in a revolt against the government by Minnesota Sioux tribes.

Angry that the government refused to hand over money in exchange for the land the tribes relinquished, the resulting massacre left 500 settlers dead. After U.S. armed forces quelled the rebellion, Sioux were removed from land in the state.

The Mdewakanton, who sat out the revolt or actively helped the settlers, were rewarded for their loyalty in appropriations laws passed in 1888, 1889 and 1890.

After other tribes intermingled with the Mdewakanton, however, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 changed how the government viewed the three tracts of land.

By the time the 1980 law was passed, the government argued that the Mdewakanton no longer had an exclusive claim to the land.

Lettow sided with the government on one issue: the tribe's entitlement to funds from a transfer of Indian land in Wabasha to a portion of the Upper Mississippi River. He said a 1944 bill crafted by lawmakers extinguished any rights the tribe had to that land under prior appropriations laws.

The judge, however, said the government was liable to the tribe for funds collected before the 1980 laws were enacted.

"The undisputed facts demonstrate that the government disbursed the funds to the three communities rather than to the lineal descendants, thereby contravening the provisions of the appropriations acts that dictated that only eligible Mdewakanton could receive the benefits of the acts and that such benefits be conferred in as equal an amount as practicable," Lettow wrote.

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