Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe
Annotate this Case
442 U.S. 653 (1979)
U.S. Supreme Court
Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe, 442 U.S. 653 (1979)
Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe
Argued March 21, 1979
Decided June 20, 1979
442 U.S. 653
Pursuant to an 1854 treaty, the reservation of the Omaha Indian Tribe (Tribe) was established in the Territory of Nebraska on the west bank of the Missouri River, with the eastern boundary being fixed as the center of the river's main channel. In 1867, a General Land Office survey established that certain land was included in the reservation, but since then, the river has changed course several times, leaving most of the survey area on the Iowa side of the river, separated from the rest of the reservation. Residents of Iowa ultimately settled on and improved this land, and these non-Indian owners and their successors in title occupied the land for many years prior to April 2, 1975, when they were dispossessed by the Tribe, with the assistance of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Three federal actions, consolidated in District Court, were instituted by respondents, the Tribe and the United States as trustee of the reservation lands, against petitioners, including the State of Iowa and several individuals. Both sides sought to quiet title in their names, respondents arguing that the river's movement had been avulsive, and thus did not affect the reservation's boundary, whereas petitioners argued that the disputed land had been formed by gradual accretion and belonged to the Iowa riparian owners. The District Court held that state, rather than federal, law should be the basis of decision; that 25 U.S.C. § 19 -- which provides that,
"[i]n all trials about the right of property in which an Indian may be a party on one side, and a white person on the other, the burden of proof shall rest upon the white person, whenever the Indian shall make out a presumption of title in himself from the fact of previous possession or ownership"
-- was not applicable, because the Tribe could not make out a prima facie case that it possessed the disputed land in the past without proving its case on the merits; and that, under Nebraska law, the changes in the river had been accretive, and thus the petitioners were the owners of the disputed area. The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that federal, rather than state, law was applicable; that the Tribe had made a sufficient showing to invoke
§ 194; and that, applying the federal common law of accretion and avulsion to the evidence, the evidence was in equipoise, and thus, under § 194, judgment must be entered for the Tribe.
1. The Court of Appeals was partially correct in ruling that § 194 is applicable here; by its terms, § 194 applies to the private petitioners, but not to petitioner State of Iowa. In view of the history of § 194 and its purpose of protecting Indians from claims made by non-Indian squatters on their lands, it applies even when an Indian tribe is the litigant, rather than one or more individual Indians. But, while Congress was aware that § 194 would be interpreted to cover artificial entities, such as corporations, as well as individuals, there is nothing to indicate that Congress intended the word "white person" to include any of the States of the Union. Here, there seems to be no question that the disputed land was once riparian land lying on the west bank of the Missouri River, and was long occupied by the Tribe as part of the reservation set apart for it in consequence of the 1854 treaty, and this was enough to bring § 194 into play. In view of the purpose of the statute and its use of the term "presumption" which the "white man" must overcome, § 194 contemplates the non-Indian's shouldering the burden of persuasion as well as the burden of producing evidence once the tribe has made out its prima facie case of prior title or possession. Pp. 442 U. S. 664-669.
2. The Court of Appeals properly concluded that federal law governs the substantive aspects of the dispute, but it erred in arriving at a federal standard, independent of state law, to determine whether there had been an avulsion or an accretion. Pp. 442 U. S. 669-679.
(a) The general rule that, absent an overriding federal interest, the laws of the several States determine the ownership of the banks and shores of waterways, Oregon e rel. State Land Board v. Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co., 429 U. S. 363, does not oust federal law in this litigation. Here, the United States has never yielded title or terminated its interest in the property, and, in these circumstances, the Indians' right to the property depends on federal law, "wholly apart from the application of state law principles which normally and separately protect a valid right of possession." Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 U. S. 661, 414 U. S. 677. Pp. 669-671.
(b) However, state law should be borrowed as the federal rule of decision here. There is no imperative need to develop a general body of federal common law to decide cases such as this, where an interstate boundary is not in dispute (the location of the boundary between Iowa and Nebraska having been settled by Compact in 1943). Furthermore,
given equitable application of state law, there is little likelihood of injury to federal trust responsibilities or to tribal possessory interests. And this is also an area in which the States have substantial interest in having their own law resolve controversies such as these; there is considerable merit in not having the reasonable expectations, under state real property law, of private landowners upset by the vagaries of being located adjacent to or across from Indian reservations or other property in which the United States has a substantial interest. Cf. Board of Comm'rs v. United States, 308 U. S. 343; Arkansas v. Tennessee, 246 U. S. 158. Pp. 442 U. S. 671-676.
(c) Under the construction of the 1943 Compact in Nebraska v. Iowa, 406 U. S. 117, Nebraska law should be applied in determining whether the changes in the river that moved the disputed land from Nebraska to Iowa were avulsive or accretive. Pp. 442 U. S. 676-678.
575 F.2d 620, vacated and remanded.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except POWELL, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 442 U. S. 679.
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