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Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States

348 U.S. 272 (1955)

Supreme Court Justice Reed's Opinion for the Court


The Indian tribe, indigenous to the territory in question since the beginning of time, claim compensation for the taking of timber from the land by the United States Government. The Court of Claims held that the plaintiffs were an identifiable group of American Indians residing in Alaska; that the group's interest in the lands was "original Indian title" existing before Russia claimed possession of Alaska and before Russia 'sold" Alaska to the United States. But the Court then held that no rights existed to the benefit of the Indians by virtue of the fact that the Congress of the United States has not recognized the Indians' claim of title to the land in question. The Supreme Court granted review of the Indians' petition for certiorari.

Justice Reed's Opinion for the Court

" "The problem presented is the nature of the Indians' interest in the land, if any. The Indians claim a full proprietary ownership of the land. Such interest, they claim, is compensable. If they have a fee simple interest in the land, they have in interest in the timber. It is the Indians' contention that their tribe has continually occupied and used the land from time immemorial and therefore the sale of timber off such lands constitutes a taking by the United States for which compensation is owed."

The Government denies that the Indians have any compensable interest in the timber. It asserts that the Tee-Hit-Ton Indians' property interest, if any, is merely that of the right to the use of the land at the Government's will; that Congress has never recognized any legal interest of the Tee-Hit-Ton in the land and therefore without such recognition no compensation is due.

We have examined the Congressional acts and find nothing to indicate any intention of Congress to grant the Indians any permanent rights in the lands of Alaska occupied by them by permission of Congress.

It is well settle that in all the States of the Union the tribes who inhabited the lands of the States held claim to such lands after the coming of the white man, under what is sometimes terms original Indian title or permission from whites to occupy. That description means mere possession not specifically recognized as ownership by Congress. After conquest they were permitted to occupy portion of territory over which they had previously exercised `sovereignty.'

Frequent and bloody wars, in which the whites were not always the aggressors, unavoidably ensued. European policy, numbers, and skill, prevailed. . . . Every American schoolboy knows that the savage tribes of this continent were deprived of their ancestral ranges by force and that, even when the Indians ceded millions of acres by treaty in return for blankets, food, and trinkets, it was not a sale but the conquerors' will that deprived them of the land.

In light of the history of Indian relations to this Nation, no other course would meet the problem of growth of the United States except [not] to subject the Government to an obligation to pay the value [of the Indians' land] when taken. . . The judgment of the Court of Claims is affirmed.

Justice Reed in his Glory