Solem v. Bartlett
465 U.S. 463 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Solem v. Bartlett, 465 U.S. 463 (1984)

Solem v. Bartlett

No. 82-1253

Argued December 7, 1984

Decided February 22, 1984

465 U.S. 463




The Cheyenne River Act (Act), enacted in 1908, authorized the Secretary of the Interior "to sell and dispose of " for homesteading a specified portion of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation located in South Dakota, with the sale proceeds to be deposited in the United States Treasury to the credit of the Indians having tribal rights on the reservation. Respondent, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was convicted of attempted rape in a South Dakota state court. After exhausting state remedies, he filed a habeas corpus petition in Federal District Court, contending that the crime occurred within Indian country, that although the Act opened a portion of the reservation for homesteading, it did not diminish the reservation, and that therefore the State lacked jurisdiction over him, the federal courts having exclusive jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 1153. The District Court issued a writ of habeas corpus, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The Act did not diminish the reservation. Pp. 465 U. S. 466-481.

(a) Only Congress can divest an Indian reservation of its land and diminish its boundaries. But Congress must clearly evince an intent to change boundaries before diminishment will be found. When both a surplus land Act and its legislative history fail to provide substantial and compelling evidence of such an intent, this Court is bound by its traditional solicitude for Indian tribes to rule that diminishment did not take place, and that old reservation boundaries survived the opening of unallotted land for non-Indian settlement. Pp. 465 U. S. 466-472.

(b) Here, the Act's operative language authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to "sell and dispose" of certain lands, coupled with the creation of Indian accounts for the proceeds, suggests that the Secretary was simply being authorized to act as the Tribe's sales agent. The balance of the Act is consistent with the implication of the operative language that the Act opened, but did not diminish, the reservation. In fact, certain provisions of the Act strongly suggest that the unallotted opened lands would, for the immediate future, remain an integral part of the reservation. Isolated phrases in the Act supporting the view that the reservation was diminished, when balanced against the Act's stated and limited goal of opening up reservation lands for sale to non-Indian settlers,

Page 465 U. S. 464

cannot carry the burden of establishing an express congressional purpose to diminish. Pp. 465 U. S. 472-476.

(c) Nor do either the circumstances surrounding the passage of the Act or subsequent events establish a clear congressional purpose to diminish the reservation. Moreover, the opened portions of the reservation have retained their Indian character since 1908. Pp. 465 U. S. 476-480. 691 F.2d 420, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

On May 29, 1908, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to open 1.6 million acres of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation for homesteading. Act of May 29, 1908, ch. 218, 35 Stat. 460 et seq. (Act or Cheyenne River Act). The question presented in this case is whether that Act of Congress diminished the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation or simply permitted non-Indians to settle within existing reservation boundaries.

Page 465 U. S. 465


In 1979, the State of South Dakota charged respondent John Bartlett, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, with attempted rape. Respondent pleaded guilty to the charge, and was sentenced to a 10-year term in the state penitentiary at Sioux Falls. After exhausting state remedies, respondent filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota. Respondent contended that the crime for which he had been convicted occurred within the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, established by Congress in the Act of Mar. 2, 1889, ch. 405, § 4, 25 Stat. 889; that, although on May 29, 1908, Congress opened for settlement by non-Indians the portion of the reservation on which respondent committed his crime, the opened portion nonetheless remained Indian country, [Footnote 1] and that the State therefore lacked criminal jurisdiction over respondent. [Footnote 2]

Page 465 U. S. 466

Relying on previous decisions of the Eighth Circuit dealing with the Act of May 29, 1908, [Footnote 3] the District Court accepted respondent's claim that the Act had not diminished the original Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, and issued a writ of habeas corpus. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit, sitting en banc, affirmed, two judges dissenting. 691 F.2d 420 (1982). Because the Supreme Court of South Dakota has issued a pair of opinions offering a conflicting interpretation of the Act of May 29, 1908, [Footnote 4] we granted certiorari. 461 U.S. 956 (1983). We now affirm.


In the latter half of the 19th century, large sections of the Western States and Territories were set aside for Indian reservations. Towards the end of the century, however, Congress increasingly adhered to the view that the Indian tribes should abandon their nomadic lives on the communal reservations and settle into an agrarian economy on privately owned parcels of land. [Footnote 5] This shift was fueled in part by the belief that individualized farming would speed the Indians' assimilation into American society and in part by the continuing demand for new lands for the waves of homesteaders moving west. [Footnote 6] As a result of these combined pressures, Congress

Page 465 U. S. 467

passed a series of surplus land Acts at the turn of the century to force Indians onto individual allotments carved out of reservations and to open up unallotted lands for non-Indian settlement. Initially, Congress legislated its Indian allotment program on a national scale, [Footnote 7] but by the time of the Act of May 29, 1908, Congress was dealing with the surplus land question on a reservation-by-reservation basis, with each surplus land Act employing its own statutory language, the product of a unique set of tribal negotiation and legislative compromise.

The modern legacy of the surplus land Acts has been a spate of jurisdictional disputes between state and federal officials as to which sovereign has authority over lands that were opened by the Acts and have since passed out of Indian ownership. [Footnote 8] As a doctrinal matter, the States have jurisdiction over unallotted opened lands if the applicable surplus land Act freed that land of its reservation status and thereby diminished the reservation boundaries. On the other hand, federal, state, and tribal authorities share jurisdiction over these lands if the relevant surplus land Act did not diminish the existing Indian reservation because the entire opened area is Indian country under 18 U.S.C. § 111(a) (1982 ed.). See nn. 1 and | 1 and S. 463fn2|>2, supra.

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