Ute Indians v. United States,
330 U.S. 169 (1947)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ute Indians v. United States, 330 U.S. 169 (1947)

Confederated Bands of Ute Indians v. United States

No. 141

Argued January 14, 15, 1947

Decided February 17, 1947

330 U.S. 169


By a treaty of 1868 between the United States and the Ute Indians, a reservation was established for the Indians in Colorado. Subsequently, an erroneous survey showed the northern boundary to be south of the true boundary, and as excluding the White River Valley lands which actually were in the reservation. Believing the survey to be accurate, and desiring to preserve these lands for the use of the Indians, the President, by an Executive Order of 1875, withdrew from sale and "set apart for the use of the . . . Ute Indians, as an addition to the present reservation in said Territory" a strip of land north "of the present Ute Indian Reservation." Later, in order to punish the Indians for a massacre, dispossess them of the reservation, and remove them from Colorado, Congress passed the Act of June 15, 1880, 21 Stat. 199, which ratified and embodied an agreement by their leaders to cede to the United States all territory of "the present Ute Reservation," and provided that all lands so ceded and not allotted specifically to individual Indians would be restored to the public domain for sale as public lands and that, subject to certain conditions, the proceeds of their sale should be distributed to the Indians. An Executive Order of 1882 declared that the lands "set apart for the use of the . . . Ute Indians" by the Executive Order of 1875 is "hereby restored to the public domain." The Indians brought this suit under the Act of June 28, 1938, 52 Stat. 1209, as amended, 55 Stat. 593, to obtain compensation for the lands north of the original reservation made available to them by the Executive Order of 1875.


1. Insofar as the claim rests on the Executive Order of 1875, it cannot be sustained. P. 330 U. S. 176.

Page 330 U. S. 170

(a) The President had no authority to convey to the Indians a compensable interest in the lands lying north of the true boundary of the reservation created by the treaty of 1868. Pp. 330 U. S. 176, 330 U. S. 180.

(b) The Executive Order of 1875 made the Indians no more than tenants at will of the Government on that part of the land outside the true treaty reservation. P. 330 U. S. 176.

(c) The real purpose of the Executive Order was to protect the Indians' enjoyment of the White River Valley lands conveyed to them by the original treaty, and this purpose has been accomplished. Pp. 330 U. S. 177, 330 U. S. 180.

2. The Act of June 15, 1880, gives the Indians no right to recover for the land north of the true boundary of the treaty reservation set apart for their use by the Executive Order of 1875. Pp. 330 U. S. 177-180.

(a) It contains nothing showing a congressional purpose to convey such lands to the Indians. P. 330 U. S. 177.

(b) Nor was it intended to transform the Executive Order into a conveyance of a compensable interest in lands not included in the original treaty reservation. Pp. 330 U. S. 178, 330 U. S. 180.

(c) It was intended to compensate them only for the lands in the original reservation which they ceded to the United States. P. 330 U. S. 178.

(d) The fact that it provided for the cession of the "present Ute Reservation" is not sufficient to attribute to Congress a purpose to treat as part of that reservation lands which never had been legally conveyed to the Indians and had only been made available to them for the sole purpose of making them secure in their possession of the White River Valley. Pp. 330 U. S. 178-179.

3. Even if the Indians understood in 1880 that they owned the lands described in the Executive Order of 1875 lying north of the White River Valley, that their "present Ute Reservation" included them, and that Congress undertook by the 1880 Act to sell these lands for their benefit, and, even if Congress was aware of this understanding, this would not require a different result, in view of the fact that the Act neither conveyed nor ratified conveyance of these lands. P. 330 U. S. 179.

4. While a treaty with Indians is to be construed so as to carry out the Government's obligations in accordance with the fair understanding of the Indians, this Court cannot, under the guise of interpretation, create presidential authority where there was none, or rewrite congressional acts so as to make them mean something they obviously were not intended to mean. P. 330 U. S. 179.

106 Ct.Cl. 33, 64 F.Supp. 569, affirmed.

Page 330 U. S. 171

In a suit by the Ute Indians under the Act of June 28, 1938, 52 Stat. 1209, as amended, 55 Stat. 593 to recover compensation for lands made available to them by an 1875 Executive Order of the President and subsequently taken from them by the United States, the Court of Claims held that they had no compensable interest in such lands. 106 Ct.Cl. 33, 64 F.Supp. 569. This Court granted certiorari. 329 U.S. 694. Affirmed., p. 330 U. S. 180.

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