Court rejects lawsuit by Mdewakanton descendants
Lori Carlson on March 12, 2009 – 2:01pm.
By Lori Carlson, Editor
A court battle for tribal land rights, called “the most momentous issue in modern Indian history” by one of its champions, was halted by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday.
The court determined that self-described “lineal descendants” of the “Loyal Mdewakanton” Dakota are not owed money for land promised to their ancestors in the late 1800s. The lawsuit, Wolfchild vs. U.S., originally was filed in 2003 by the Minnesota Mdewakanton Dakota Oyate (MMDO), included land on the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux reservation. The suit is named for Lower Sioux tribal chairman Sheldon Peters Wolfchild, the main plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The MMDO – which grew from 200 to nearly 20,000 members over time – said it could prove its members are descendants of the Loyal Mdewakanton listed on the 1886 census. The group claimed the government breached its trust when it created an act in 1980 affirming that the land belongs to the Shakopee, Prairie Island and Lower Sioux communities.
Barbara Feezor Buttes, a Prior Lake resident, was among the main plaintiffs in the case. Buttes, who in 2006 called the case “momentous,” has maintained that she and the other descendants are fighting for the rights and identities of their families. Buttes even wrote a book about the issue, called “Beyond Sovereignty: The Mdewakanton Identity Heist.”
A federal judge ruled in 2007 that the so-called descendants could sue the U.S. government for mismanagement of tribal lands occupied by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, Prairie Island and Lower Sioux tribes in Minnesota. But on Tuesday, the appeals court reversed the judge’s ruling. According to the court decision, the Interior Department does not have owe trust land or money to the descendants even though appropriation acts created in 1888, 1889 and 1890 stated that the federal government was supposed to hold land for the “permanent benefit” of the Minnesota Mdewakanton listed on the census.
Tuesday’s court ruling states that even if those early appropriation acts could be interpreted as creating a trust for descendants, the 1980 act approved by Congress confirms that the land belongs to the reservations operated by the Shakopee, Prairie Island and Lower Sioux.
The issue stems from an 1862 Sioux uprising, after which Congress terminated the trust status of the Sioux reservation. At the same time, Congress allowed the Loyal Mdewakanton to remain in Minnesota and later created the appropriations acts of 1888-1890 to permit the secretary of the interior to buy land, cattle, horses and agriculture for the Loyal Mdewakanton. Over the years, the Mdewakanton and others formed the three federally recognized tribes involved in the case.
In addition to his 2007 ruling allowing the descendants to sue, U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Charles F. Lettow also granted requests by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux and Prairie Island communities to stay out of the lawsuit. He granted the two communities’ request to quash a summons that would have required them to be defendants in the lawsuit.
On Tuesday, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Erick Kaardal of Minneapolis, issued a brief statement on the court’s opinion, saying he and other attorneys for the group are reviewing their options for appeal.
Lori Carlson can be reached at (952) 345-6378 or email@example.com.