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Law School Case Brief

Winters v. United States - 207 U.S. 564, 28 S. Ct. 207 (1908)

Rule:

A reservation of the waters of Milk river for irrigation purposes in favor of the Indians on the Fort Belknap Reservation will be implied from the agreement of May 1, 1888 (25 Stat. at L. 113, chap. 213), by which the Indians, having the right to occupy and use a large tract of arid lands, ceded to the United States all those lands except a small tract set apart as such reservation.

Facts:

Plaintiff United States brought suit against defendants, individuals, cattle companies, and irrigation companies, to restrain them from constructing or maintaining dams or reservoirs preventing the Milk River from flowing to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The companies contended that when Montana was admitted to the United States, the agreement with the Indians was repealed by the act of admission. The circuit court granted the interlocutory order enjoining the companies from interfering with the water of the river. The companies appealed.

Issue:

Does the United States have the right to prevent the defendant companies from interfering with the water of the river?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The decree enjoining the companies from utilizing river waters intended for an Indian Reservation was affirmed. The United States Supreme Court held that while the United States could itself abrogate rights granted to the Indians under a treaty with them, it alone had this power, and unless such rights were abrogated by the United States itself by subsequent legislation it was well settled that all rights acquired by the Indians under the treaty were to be fully protected against invasion by other parties.

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