Choctaw Nation v. Oklahoma

PETITIONER: Choctaw Nation
RESPONDENT: Oklahoma et al.
LOCATION: Riverbed of the Arkansas River

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1969-1970)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 397 US 620 (1970)
REARGUED: Mar 05, 1970
DECIDED: Apr 27, 1970
ARGUED: Oct 22, 1969 / Oct 23, 1969
GRANTED: Apr 21, 1969

G. T. Blackenship - for the respondents
Louis F. Claiborne - for the United States, as amicus curiae, urging reversal
Lon Kile - for the petitioners in 41
M. Darwin Kirk - for the respondents
Peyton Ford - for the petitioners in 59

Facts of the case

Through several treaties, the United States granted the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations several million acres of land in what is now Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation sued the State of Oklahoma and several corporations for leasing gas, oil, and mineral rights to the river beds of the Arkansas River within that land. The Choctaw Nation was allowed to intervene to claim that the riverbeds of Arkansas River within their land grant belonged to them. The district court ruled against the Indian Nations, holding that the land grant did not convey rights to the river beds. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed.


Did the U.S. convey rights to the riverbeds of the navigable portion of the Arkansas river through treaties with the Cherokee and Choctaw nations?

Media for Choctaw Nation v. Oklahoma

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 23, 1969 (Part 2) in Choctaw Nation v. Oklahoma
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 22, 1969 (Part 1) in Choctaw Nation v. Oklahoma

Audio Transcription for Oral Reargument - March 05, 1970 in Choctaw Nation v. Oklahoma

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments in Number 41, Choctaw Nation and Chickasaw Nation against Oklahoma and Number 59, Cherokee Nation or Tribe of Indians in Oklahoma.

Counsel, I have an announcement to make of interest to you.

You observe Mr. Justice Harlan is not going to sit on this case.

I will participate in the decision of the case based on the prior, all briefs records, the prior argument which I heard and the tape recordings of this argument, but will not remain present and not able to remain present in the courtroom for this argument but will take part in the decision.

Mr. Justice Black, if you will please take to preside.

Hugo L. Black:

All right gentlemen.

Lon Kile:

Mr. Justice Black, may it please the Court.

The circuit court's decision from which this appeal was taken had turned on that Court's construction of this Court's decision in United States versus Holt, United States versus Holt State Bank.

A review of the facts in United States versus Holt State Bank may of be of some help in the discussion of its application to the facts and the case at bar.

In United States versus Holt State Bank, Chippewas ceded to the United States their right of occupancy to a certain lands in Minnesota.

In return, the United States agreed to put the land up for sale and when it was sold, put the money into a trust fund to be used for the benefits of Chippewas.

Within the lands that the Chippewas ceded to the United States was a lake called Mud Lake.

Following the treaty with the Chippewas, Minnesota became a state and later Mud Lake was drained and its bed became valuable for agricultural purposes.

After Mud Lake was drained, the Government claimed that it was obligated to sell the bed of Mud Lake for the benefit of the Chippewas.

The defendants claimed that upon its admittance to the union, Minnesota became the owner of the bed under the equal footing doctrine and that they have succeeded to the rights of the state.

The case presented two issues.

First, was the lake navigable and second, were the lands underlying the lake disposed of by the United States before Minnesota became a state.

Well, the Court first found that the lake was navigable and then it addressed itself to the question of whether the United States has its post of those lands before Minnesota became a state.

Now it was not claimed in Holt State Bank that United States have made an affirmative disposition of the bed of the lake, but only this was the only claim that was made, that the lake was in the limits of a reservation when Minnesota was admitted to the union.

Now, in it's analysis of the facts in that case, this Court said, “the reservation came in to being through a succession of treaties with the Chippewas whereby they ceded to the United States, their aboriginal right of occupancy to the surrounding lands.

There was no formal setting apart of what was not ceded.

The effect of what was done was to reserve in a general way for the continued occupation of the Indians, what remained of their aboriginal territory and thus it came to be known and recognized as a reservation.”

This Court in its decision in U.S. versus Holt State Bank referred to the equal footing doctrine and said, “First that disposals by the United States during territorial days is not likely to be inferred and should not be regarded as intended unless the intention was definitely declared or otherwise made very plain.”

This Court found nothing in the cession of a right of occupancy in exchange for a promise that the land would be sold and the money used for the benefit of the Chippewas, rightfully so I think is even approaching a grant by the Government to the Indians of the underlying navigable waters.

And this Court did not find anything in this cession of a right of occupancy in exchange for the creation of a trust fund that would evince a purpose to depart from the established policy of treating such lands as held for the benefit of a future state and we take no issue with this Court's decision in Holt State Bank case.

We believe that -- we believe that it's a good decision and it's a sound decision and one that should be allowed a stand.

But it must be remembered that in Holt State Bank, the Chippewas were the grantors and the United States was the grantee.

The Court said there was no formal setting apart of that which was not ceded.

What the Court is there saying is this.

The Chippewas were the grantors.