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Monday, February 26, 2024 | Back issues
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Osage County Isn’t a Reservation, Court Says

(CN) - Osage County, Okla., is not an Indian reservation and hasn't been for more than 100 years, the 10th Circuit ruled, dismissing the Osage Nation's bid to stop the state from collecting income tax from tribal members who live there.

The appellate panel in Denver held that the Osage Reservation, which allegedly occupied the same land as the county, ceased to exist after the 1906 Osage Allotment Act.

In 1999, a tribal member claimed that she did not have to pay state income tax because the Osage Reservation had never been disestablished. After the Oklahoma Tax Commission determined that the woman did not live in Indian country, the Osage Nation sought declaratory judgment that the "reservation boundaries have not been extinguished, disestablished, terminated, or diminished and is and remains the Indian country of the Nation."

The tribe also requested an injunction to stop the state from collecting taxes from its members living in Osage County.

The district court held that the Osage reservation had been disestablished and that tribal members who work and live on non-trust and non-restricted land in Osage County are not exempt from state income tax. On appeal, the tribe argued that its reservation still existed.

After reviewing the original intent of the 100-year-old Allotment Act and consulting with historians, the three-judge panel agreed with the lower court.

"The manner in which the Osage Allotment Act was negotiated reflects clear congressional intent and Osage understanding that the reservation would be disestablished," Judge Paul Kelly wrote. "The Act was passed at a time where the United States sought dissolution of Indian reservations, specifically the Oklahoma tribes' reservations."

The court added that the "legislative history and the negotiation process make clear that all the parties at the table understood that the Osage reservation would be disestablished by the Osage Allotment Act, and uncontested facts in the record provide further evidence of a contemporaneous understanding that the reservation had been dissolved."

Current population trends in the county also argue for disestablishment, the court noted. As of the 2000 Census, Osage County was 84 percent non-Indian, with Osage Indians accounting for 3.5 percent of the county's population. As of 2008, the federal government held only about 0.04 percent of the total land in Osage County in trust for the Osage Nation.

Because the reservation has been disestablished, the 10th Circuit ruled, the court affirmed dismissal of the case without addressing the tax-exemption claim.

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