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Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock - 187 U.S. 553, 23 S. Ct. 216 (1903)

Rule:

Plenary authority over the tribal relations of the Indians has been exercised by Congress from the beginning, and the power has always been deemed a political one, not subject to be controlled by the judicial department of the government. Until the year 1871 the policy was pursued of dealing with the Indian tribes by means of treaties, and, of course, a moral obligation rested upon Congress to act in good faith in performing the stipulations entered into on its behalf. But, as with treaties made with foreign nations, the legislative power might pass laws in conflict with treaties made with the Indians.

Facts:

Article 6 of the Treaty allowed members to select a tract from lands held in common for their exclusive possession. Article 12 of the Treaty provided that no treaty for the cession of any portion of the reservation held in common would be valid unless executed by three fourths of all the adult males occupying the same and no cession by the tribe would be construed to deprive an individual member of his rights to a selected tract without his consent. Subsequently, an agreement was signed by the tribes affecting the lands. Congress enacted legislation that did not conform exactly to the agreement as signed by the Indians. It modified the agreement by changing the time for making the land allotments, and it also provided that the proceeds of the surplus lands remaining after allotments to the Indians should be held to await the judicial decision of a claim asserted  by the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes of Indians to the surplus lands. Appellant sought review of a decree of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia in favor of appellee government official in the members' action alleging that the members were vested with an interest in lands pursuant to the Treaty proclaimed August 25 1868, 15 Stat. 581, and that their interest in such lands was protected by the Fifth Amendment.

Issue:

Was Congress empowered by the use of its plenary power to unilaterally break the treaties between the United States and the Indian tribes?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States held that the plenary authority over the tribal relations of the Indians has been exercised by Congress from the beginning. This power has always been deemed a political one, not subject to be controlled by the judicial department of the government. The power exists to abrogate the provisions of an Indian treaty, though presumably such power will be exercised only when circumstances arise which will not only justify the government in disregarding the stipulations of the treaty, but may demand, in the interest of the country and the Indians themselves, that it should do so. When, therefore, treaties were entered into between the United States and a tribe of Indians it was never doubted that the power to abrogate existed in Congress. The Court explained that in a contingency such power might be availed of from considerations of governmental policy, particularly if consistent with perfect good faith towards the Indians. 

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