Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In 1946, after decades of periodic debate, the United States established the Indian Claims Commission to give Native Americans their "day in court." The commission operated until 1978. Native American tribes and bands were given five years to register claims with the commission, claims relating to past injustices of federal Indian policy, including lands illegally taken, lands taken for "unconscionably low" compensation, and the government's misuse of Indian monies. Most Native American groups did register claims, and many claims were upheld, but ultimately there was little justice delivered in the process.

The Indian Claims Commission, comprised of three (later four) judges appointed by the president, actually functioned as a court that heard arguments of two adversaries–the Native American claimants and the United States as defendant–and then passed judgment. Awards were monetary only; return of land was expressly excluded. In a typical claim involving land, the Native American claimants had first to prove title to that land, then show that the original compensation paid (generally during the nineteenth century) was significantly below its fair market value at the time of taking. The difference between the fair market value and the original compensation (minus lawyers' fees and other offsets) constituted the award. Once an award was accepted or a case dismissed, then that claim was dead forever. Despite platitudes about "belated justice," the United States primarily intended this to be a wiping clean of the slate of outstanding claims as a prelude to termination–the prevailing policy to eliminate tribes as a separate factor in American society.

Altogether, by the deadline, 176 tribes and bands lodged 370 claims, which were separated into 617 dockets. Plains tribes were well represented. From the Lipan Apaches of southern Texas to the Blackfeet and Gros Ventres of northern Montana and from the Omahas of eastern Nebraska to the Crows of Wyoming, Plains Indians took their grievances to the commission.

In all, eighteen Plains tribes and nations lodged claims. The largest award, $35,060,000 for land primarily in West Texas, went to the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches in 1974. Other sizable awards included $15 million (1965) to the Cheyennes and Arapahos for lands in northeastern Colorado and adjacent Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas; and $10,242,984 to the Crows (1954) for their traditional homelands in Wyoming and Montana. The smallest award–$2,458–was made to the Poncas of Nebraska in 1965 for an accounting claim. In the most notorious case, involving the Lakotas' (Sioux) 1877 cession of the Black Hills, the Indian Claims Commission's award of $17.5 million (without interest) was appealed and eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1980 that, because the taking was unconstitutional, not just inadequate, the Lakotas merited interest on the award from 1877 on. Their award, accumulating to more than $600 million by the late 1990s, sits unclaimed in the U.S. Treasury; the Lakotas want their sacred Black Hills back, not a monetary settlement.

On close analysis, even sizable awards diminished to small payments when they were allocated to individual Native Americans. (Sometimes awards were put into tribal investments, but this was often contentious, because the tribal members who did not reside on reservations would not benefit from reservation development.) The Pawnees of central Nebraska, for example, were awarded $7,316,096 in 1964, largely for lands that had been taken in the nineteenth century for unconscionably low compensation. Of this, the lawyers took $876,897 for fees and expenses, leaving $6,439,199. In March 1964 the tribal council voted to distribute the award (with a small amount of accrued interest) on a per capita basis to the 1,883 enrolled members of the tribe. Each Pawnee received about $3,530–no doubt a boon in (always) hard times, but hardly a redress of past injustices. The Omahas, the Pawnees' traditional neighbors, received even less ($750 for each tribal member) in their 1960 settlement, and each Yankton Sioux accepted $249 in 1960 as a reward for enduring ten years of litigation in their land claims case.

The Indian Claims Commission, therefore, should be viewed more as a continuation of the past than a break from it. As in the nineteenth century, most Plains Indians (and Native Americans elsewhere in the country) felt obliged to accept the United States' definition of what constituted justice. At no stage of the litigation process before the Indian Claims Commission was the value that Plains Indians placed on their lands as homelands taken into account.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Indian Claims Commission. Final Report. 96th Cong., 2ND sess., 1980, H. Doc. 96–383.

Lieder, M., and J. Page. Wild Justice: The People of Geronimo vs. the United States. New York: Random House, 1997.

Sutton, I., ed. Irredeemable America: The Indians' Estate and Land Claims. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985.

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