Poafpybitty v. Skelly Oil Co. - 390 U.S. 365 (1968)
U.S. Supreme Court
Poafpybitty v. Skelly Oil Co., 390 U.S. 365 (1968)
Poafpybitty v. Skelly Oil Co.
Argued January 24, 1968
Decided March 18, 1968
390 U.S. 365
Petitioners, Comanche Indians, brought this action for breach of an oil and gas lease which they had executed to respondent with the approval of the Acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs involving land which they held under trust patents issued by the United States under the General Allotment Act of 1887, as amended. That Act provided that individual Indians were to be allotted land on their reservations which the United States was to hold "in trust for the sole use and benefit of the Indian" allottees. During the 25-year trust period, which has been repeatedly extended, restricted Indian land may be sold or leased only with the consent of the Secretary of the Interior. Leasing of allotted land for mining purposes "by said allottee" is expressly authorized (25 U.S.C. § 396). The Secretary of the Interior must approve the lease, but is not the lessor, and cannot generally lease such land on his own authority. The Secretary has promulgated extensive regulations for the operation, development, and control of, and is empowered to cancel, the leases. A provision in the lease here involved (§ 6) authorizes the Secretary to cancel the lease "before restrictions are removed," and provides that the lessor shall have remedies for breach of contract thereafter. The trial court sustained respondent's demurrer. The Oklahoma Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the terms of the lease and Interior Department regulations precluded petitioners from suing.
Held: Petitioners have standing to maintain this action. Pp. 390 U. S. 368-376.
(a) Federal restrictions preventing an Indian from selling or leasing his allotted land without the consent of the Government and the fact that the Government, as guardian of the Indian, can sue to protect allotments do not preclude the Indian landowner from maintaining a suit to protect his rights. Heckman v. United States, 224 U. S. 413 (1913). Pp. 390 U. S. 368-372.
(b) Nothing in the detailed regulatory scheme for supervision by the Secretary of the Interior of oil and gas leases of allotted land diminishes an Indian's right to maintain an action to protect his lease. Pp. 372-374.
(c) In view of the formidable administrative problems of discharging its trust obligations over the very large number of scattered Indian allotments, the United States has supported petitioners' position that they have capacity to sue under the oil and gas lease. P. 390 U. S. 374.
(d) The Secretary's power to cancel a lease of allotted land does not foreclose less drastic relief for breaches of its terms. P. 390 U. S. 374.
(e) Section 6 of the lease does not deny all remedies otherwise available to the Indian prior to removal of federal restrictions on his power to alienate the land. P. 390 U. S. 375.
(f) Respondent's contention that the judgment should be sustained on available adequate state procedural grounds is not tenable, since the Oklahoma Supreme Court's decision rested solely on federal grounds. Pp. 390 U. S. 375-376.
Reversed and remanded.