(CN) – The Arapaho and Shoshone tribes in Wyoming waited too long to sue the government for allegedly converting seven oil and gas leases to a less profitable type of lease, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled.
The tribes, which share the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming, said the government illegally modified their leases in the early 1940s and mid-1950s.
The original leases stemmed from a 1916 law authorizing the government to lease any land ceded by Indian tribes for oil and gas development. Those 20-year leases could be renewed in 10-year intervals and guaranteed at least 10 percent royalties.
In 1938, Congress enacted the Indian Mineral Leasing Act, which tweaked the terms of the oil and gas leases. The length of the leases was cut in half, and royalties were subject to government rules and regulations. The 1938 law also mandated “authority of the tribal council or other authorized spokesperson for such Indians” to enter into a lease.
The Northern Arapaho and Shoshone claimed the government illegally replaced seven leases under the 1916 law with leases subject to the 1938 Act, the terms of which they viewed as less profitable.
The government pointed out that the lease modifications had been “requested” by tribal councils, as required by the 1938 Act.
But the tribes insisted that they never “requested” the conversions; the oil companies did.
Nonetheless, the claims court ruled that the tribes sued too late, in 1979, well after the six-year statute of limitations had expired. The court rejected the notion that the tribes are entitled to a more lenient deadline due to the government’s breach of trust.
“Plaintiffs do not provide any legal authority that supports the argument that when a tribe’s leasing plan is complex, that circumstance creates a situation in which that tribe is excused from having actual knowledge of the content of the lease or leases it approved and executed,” Chief Judge Emily Hewitt wrote.
She said evidence from 1959 shows, “at the very least, that the tribes had constructive knowledge of what they now characterize as the illegal conversion of the leases.
The court granted the government’s motion to dismiss and rejected as moot the tribes’ motion for summary judgment.