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An Indian is a "person" within the meaning of the laws of the United States, and has, therefore, the right to sue out a writ of habeas corpus in a federal court, or before a federal judge, in all cases where he may be confined or in custody under color of authority of the United States, or where he is restrained of liberty in violation of the constitution or laws of the United States.
Relators, Native Americans, claimed that they formerly belonged to the Ponca tribe but completely severed their tribal relations, including leaving their reservation, in order to support themselves. The relators then moved to land belonging to the Omaha reservation. Respondent army general, acting upon orders of the Secretary of the Interior, arrested and detained the relators in order to return them to their tribe and reservation. Relators presented a petition seeking the allowance of a writ of habeas corpus and their final discharge from custody thereunder. In response to the writ, the district attorney claimed that jurisdiction was lacking because only American citizens could file writs of habeas corpus.
Was the writ of habeas corpus not available to the relators on the basis of their citizenship?
The court granted the writ and discharged the relators from custody. According to the court, the habeas corpus statute applied to all detained persons, regardless of citizenship. The court then looked to the expatriation statute to reason that a Native American had the right to leave his tribe forever. The respondent had the authority to arrest the relators, as they were not rightfully upon the Omaha land. However, respondent was not authorized to return the relators to the Ponca reservation.