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Law School Case Brief

Solem v. Bartlett - 465 U.S. 463, 104 S. Ct. 1161 (1984)


Diminishment of Indian reservations will not be lightly inferred. Congress must clearly evince an intent to change boundaries before diminishment will be found. The most probative evidence of congressional intent is the statutory language used to open the Indian lands. Explicit reference to cession or other language evidencing the present and total surrender of all tribal interests strongly suggests that Congress meant to divest from the reservation all unallotted opened lands. When such language of cession is buttressed by an unconditional commitment from Congress to compensate the Indian tribe for its opened land, there is an almost insurmountable presumption that Congress meant for the tribe's reservation to be diminished.


The Cheyenne River Act (Act), enacted in 1908, authorized the Secretary of the Interior "to sell and dispose of" for homesteading a specified portion of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation located in South Dakota, with the sale proceeds to be deposited in the United States Treasury to the credit of the Indians having tribal rights on the reservation. Respondent inmate, who was a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was convicted of attempted rape in a South Dakota state court. After exhausting state remedies, he filed a habeas corpus petition in Federal District Court, contending that the crime occurred within Indian country and that although the Act opened a portion of the reservation for homesteading, it did not diminish the reservation; therefore, the State lacked jurisdiction over him, and the federal courts having exclusive jurisdiction under 18 U. S. C. § 1153. The District Court issued a writ of habeas corpus, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.


In a petition for habeas corpus by an inmate who claimed the state court lacked jurisdiction over him, did the Cheyenne River Act of 1908 diminish reservation boundaries such that the opened areas of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation had lost its Indian character?




On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the issuance of the writ of habeas corpus. In determining whether the Act diminished the reservation boundaries, the court looked at the Act's language, the events surrounding the passage of the Act, and the treatment of the land after the Act was passed. The court found that the language of the Act did not indicate that Congress intended to diminish the reservation boundary. Subsequent circumstances indicated that the land at issue did not lose its Native American character. Because the land on which the inmate committed his crime was not removed from the reservation by the Act, the State lacked jurisdiction to prosecute the inmate.

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