Montana v. United States

Montana v. United States
Montana v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued December 3, 1980
Decided March 24, 1981
Full case name Montana v. United States
Prior history 604 F.2d 1162 (reversed and remanded)
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Stewart, joined by Burger, White, Powell, Rehnquist, and Stevens
Concurrence Stevens
Dissent Blackmun, joined by Brennan and Marshall
Laws applied
Crow treaties, 18 U.S.C.S. § 1165

Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544 (1981) is a Supreme Court case which addressed the Crow Nation’s ability to regulate hunting and fishing on tribal lands by a non-tribal member. The case considered several important issues concerning tribes' treaty rights and sovereign governing authority on Indian reservations. The original dispute was over access to fishing on the Big Horn River within the exterior boundaries of the Crow Reservation, Montana. The Court would eventually rule that the “exercise of tribal power beyond what is necessary to protect tribal self-government or to control internal relations is inconsistent with the dependent status of the tribes, and so cannot survive without express congressional delegation.”[1]

A prior case, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, played a significant role in the decision. The lower courts in that case had found that "preserving law and order within tribal lands was an indispensable attribute that had been neither surrendered through treaty nor removed by Congress under its plenary power." Justice Anthony Kennedy, then sitting on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, had dissented from that finding, arguing that "Congress did not intend for tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians."[2] Although Oliphant addressed tribal authority regarding criminal matters, the case was invoked in Montana v. United States since it concerns tribal authority—criminal, civil, and regulatory—regarding non-members.

The Supreme Court in Montana v. United States set a precedent which resulted in a wave of litigation challenging not only the exercise of tribal court authority over non-members, but the very existence of that authority.[3] The U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Crow Nation could regulate hunting and fishing on tribal lands, and had jurisdiction over “conduct which threatens or has some direct effect” upon the tribe’s "political integrity, economic security, and health or welfare,"[4] but a seemingly simple trial turned into a famous court case, with ongoing repercussions.[5]



In October 1973, the Crow Tribal Council enacted Resolution Tribal Edict No. 74-05, to restrict fishing in response to increasing food prices and tribal enrollment, coupled with decreasing supplies of fish and game on the reservation. In May 1974, James Junior Finch, a non-tribal member, went fishing, in open defiance of the tribal resolution. Charges were filed against Finch in district court. In September, District Court Judge James Battin ruled (for the moment) that the Big Horn riverbed was held in trust by the United States for the tribe. This ruling was consistent with one he made three years earlier, declaring in 1971 that, since the U.S. did not expressly withhold the riverbed in any of the Fort Laramie treaties, it gave the tribes “absolute right of use over the area described.”  In that ruling Battin made note that the Crow reservation was superimposed on traditional Crow territory.

In April 1975, Battin overruled the decision he made 8 months earlier.  He now decided that the riverbed in question was owned by the state. He asserted that the tribe did not have the “exclusive right to fish” since the first Fort Laramie in 1851 only referred to fishing as a “mere privilege” and the1868 Fort Laramie Treaty “does not contain any reference to fishing.” Battin further concluded that the tribe lacked sufficient sovereignty to regulate non-members from fishing and hunting on the reservation. “The blunt fact…is that an Indian tribe is sovereign to the extent the United States permits it to be -- neither more nor less.”

Days after this decision, the tribe approved a special ordinance and resolution in response to Battin’s ruling and reasserted their authority to regulate non-members' sporting activities on tribal land, empowering tribal game wardens and police to arrest non-members going on the reservation to boat, fish, trap, or hunt. They also appealed Battin’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Chairman Patrick Stands Over Bull, Thomas Lynaugh (attorney), and eighteen other delegates went to D.C. to "argue their case" to the government. The tribe felt that Battin’s ruling undermined their sovereignty as well as threatened future coal production and water rights.

In December 1976, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Battin’s decision. Judge Anthony Kennedy held that the riverbed fell within the boundaries of the reservation and was therefore owned by the U.S. and the Crow Tribe. Kennedy also made reference to the Fort Laramie treaties, stating that the establishment of the reservation was to provide a permanent homeland for the people and that they had every right to the resources contained within it. Kennedy applied traditional canons of Indian law by stating that the negotiations of the two treaties had no other meaning to the natives other than the fact that the “government recognized all lands within the metes and bounds of the reservation were theirs.”

In July 1978, on remand, Battin once again ruled in favor of the state, concluding that the U.S. did not reserve the river bed for the tribe, that the “Crow tribe was not indigenous historically to either Montana or Wyoming,” that they were a nomadic people with origins in Canada. Despite testimony from Joe Medicine Crow and Henry Old Coyote supporting the fact that Crows routinely fished and often supplemented their diet with fish, Battin concluded that “fishing was not central to the Crow diet.” Battin then addressed the issue of whether or not the State has power to regulate hunting and fishing by non-members within reservation limits. Again, Battin ruled in favor of the state, holding that Montana did have authority to regulate non-members on the river and on all non-Indian fee land within the reservation. Battin also concluded that the state had “concurrent jurisdiction” with the U.S. to regulate these activities on tribal land if the activities violated state law. Battin addressed tribal rights by stating that, while they retain the right to give permission to non-members to hunt and fish on tribal lands, tribes do not have the power to regulate non-members unless specifically granted by an “act of congress,” referring to Oliphant v. Suquamish.

In June 1979, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned Battin’s ruling, holding that the river (bed and banks) was held by the United States in trust for the Crow tribe. Addressing the emergent regulatory issues, they ruled that the tribal resolution 74-05 was invalid only when it came to “resident non-members” on fee land that they personally owned, and that the resolution was valid when it came to regulating “non-resident non-member owners of land and resident non-members on any other territory” within the reservation. The tribe could regulate both members and non-members as long as the non-members were not subjected to criminal sanctions and the process was carried out in a non-discriminatory fashion, consistent with conservation principles. Both parties were dissatisfied with the decision and both petitioned for a rehearing, but both of these petitions were denied.

In April 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state of Montana’s petition for certiorari. In the ensuing briefings, Montana’s attorneys argued that lands under navigable waters on federal land were supposed to be held in trust by the U.S. for the State. States are considered to have “equal footing” in this regard. They argued that the tribe held no authority to regulate non-members on non-Indian lands within the reservation and that the “allotment legislation” voided any treaty-based authority given to the tribe. They supported these claims with the Oliphant case, which denied tribes inherent sovereign authority to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.   The U.S. and Crow attorneys contended that the U.S. appropriated the land in question prior to statehood for the benefit of the Crow tribe and that the tribe did not expressly cede the rights in question in any treaty. They urged that the Allotment acts did not in any way change or “dilute” treaty rights.[6]

Opinion of the Court

Seal of the Supreme Court of the United States

Arguments were heard on December 3, 1980 and the decision announced March 24, 1981.

Originally, a federal district court had ruled that the state of Montana, not the Crow Tribe, owned and had the ability to regulate the land in dispute.[7] The Ninth District Court of Appeals would reverse the decision made in the lower courts, and establish that the Crow tribe had the authority to regulate hunting and fishing, since they did occur on tribal lands.[8] In its historic 1981 decision, the Supreme Court would reverse the decision made by the court of appeals, and return authority over the land to the state of Montana.[9] Although the Supreme Court ruled against the Crow Tribe, important guidelines were established regarding Native American sovereignty, and the power which tribes had over non-members.

The court would eventually rule “A tribe may regulate, through taxation, licensing, or other means, the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements. A tribe may also retain inherent power to exercise civil authority over the conduct of non-Indians on fee lands within its reservation when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe.”[10] No consensual relationships existed between the Crow tribe and the non-member sportsman. The tribe had also not said that the outdoor use of their lands by non-members would “imperil the subsistence or welfare of the tribe.”[11] As a result of these conditions, the Crow tribe was not entitled to regulate the activities by non-members on their fee lands. The tribes "retain their inherent power to determine tribal membership, to regulate domestic relations among members, and to prescribe rules of inheritance for members." However, this case was dealing with non-tribal members who were not endangering the tribe.[12] Due to the court’s statement that the tribal court could regulate conduct that “threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity , the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe”, the tribe did not have the authority to impose fees and taxes on the non-Indian hunting and fishing use of tribal lands.[13] However, this court ruling does not limit tribal sovereignty to the exterior boundaries of the reservation.[14]


Blackmun’s dissent, with Brennan and Marshall joining, addresses the issue of the canons of construction regarding treaties. “Only two years ago, this Court reaffirmed that the terms of a treaty between the United States and an Indian tribe must be construed ‘in the sense in which they would naturally be understood by the Indians.’ As in any case involving the construction of a treaty, it is necessary at the outset to determine what the parties intended. ...With respect to an Indian treaty, the Court has said that ‘the United States, as the party with the presumptively superior negotiating skills and superior knowledge of the language in which the treaty is recorded, has a responsibility to avoid taking advantage of the other side.’ ...In holding today that the bed of the Big Horn River passed to the State of Montana upon its admission to the Union, the Court disregards this settled rule of statutory construction. Because I believe that the United States intended, and the Crow Nation understood, that the bed of the Big Horn was to belong to the Crow Indians, I dissent from so much of the Court's opinion as hold otherwise. As in any case involving the construction of a treaty, it is necessary at the outset to determine what the parties intended. ...the Crow were assured in 1867 that they would receive ‘a tract of your country as a home for yourselves and children forever, upon which your great Father [sic] will not permit the white man to trespass.’ "

Rebutting the 'equal footing' argument, the dissent part II states " defies common sense to suggest that the Crow Indians would have so understood the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaties. In negotiating the 1851 treaty, the United States repeatedly referred to the territories at issue as 'your country,' as 'your land,' and as 'your territory.' ...It is hardly credible that the Crow Indians who heard this declaration would have understood that the United States meant to retain the ownership of the riverbed that ran through the very heart of the land the United States promised to set aside for the Indians and their children 'forever.' Indeed, Chief Blackfoot, when addressed by Commissioner Taylor, responded: 'The Crows used to own all this Country including all the rivers of the West.' Id., at 88. (Emphasis added.) The conclusion is inescapable that the Crow Indians understood that they retained the ownership of at least those rivers within the metes and bounds of the reservation [450 U.S. 544, 579] granted them. This understanding could only have been strengthened by the reference in the 1868 treaty to the mid-channel of the Yellowstone River as part of the boundary of the reservation; the most likely interpretation that the Crow could have placed on that reference is that half the Yellowstone belonged to them, and it is likely that they accordingly deduced that all of the rivers within the boundary of the reservation belonged to them.

In fact, any other conclusion would lead to absurd results."[15]

The dissent thus stands firmly against the majority's "silent nullification" of the treaties in its "equal footing" argument that there was a "strong presumption"[16] that the federal government held lands under navigable waters in trust for the states rather than the tribes.[17]


Montana State Flag

Montana v. United States is a critical case because, in part, it left behind a "cauldron of confusion" regarding jurisdiction.[18] The opinion states that tribes "inherent sovereign power to exercise some forms of civil jurisdiction over non-Indians on their reservations, even on non-Indian fee lands. A tribe may regulate, through taxation, licensing, or other means, the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements." In addition, tribes retain "inherent power to exercise civil authority over the conduct of non-Indians on fee lands within its reservation when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe."[19]

Since the court decision in 1981, it has been used many times as an important precedent. Shortly after the Montana decision was made, the Court used it in both National Farmers Union Ins. Co. v. Crow Tribe (1985) and Iowa Mutual Ins. Co. v. LaPlante (1987).[20] Both cases were related to tribal power, and the Court relied on Montana to rule that “tribal inherent powers do not extend beyond what is necessary to protect tribal self-government or to control internal relations.” These decisions dictate that a nonmember of the tribe can enter "federal court to challenge tribal court jurisdiction over them, usually after they've first 'exhausted' tribal court remedies."[21] The Montana decision was used again in the Atkinson Trading Company v. Shirley (2001) to strike down a tax imposed on non-tribal members for operating a hotel on lands owned by the Navajo Reservation.[22] The ruling has created problems for the courts since it was made. In the 1997 court case Strate v. A-1 Contractors, the Montana ruling was used to determine that tribal courts did not have the authority to listen to a case that involved an accident involving two non-tribal members on the reservation. The Montana case outlined the principles on tribal sovereignty, especially over issues relating to non-tribal members.[23] The ruling made in the Montana-Strate-Atkinson is derived from the Oliphant ruling, and shows the inherent tribal civil jurisdictional powers.[24]

The Montana ruling continues to be applied. In 2005 an on-duty police officer died in a single car accident when the officer's Ford Expedition rolled over on a tribally maintained road. It was a single car accident, and the car allegedly rolled over due to a product default. The Ford Motor Company entered federal court looking to challenge the issue of tribal jurisdiction in this case.[25] The Montana ruling was applied, and neither of its two exceptions were found to apply, because there were no consensual relations between the tribe and the Ford Motor Company, and the security of the nation was not at stake.[26] This is just one example of how the Montana ruling is still being applied in 21st century court cases.


A political conflict was created by the ruling.[27] The case established that state authority ceased to exist when the "political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe" was at risk.[28]


One of the most vital parts of the Montana ruling is the ability for the tribes to regulate consensual activity. This permits the regulation of many major non-Indian operations that operate on tribal lands. Consequently, the tribes have the ability to regulate bingo enterprises because they have direct connections to tribal members. The second important part of the Montana ruling is the ability of the tribes to regulate all activity related to tribal interests. As long as the interests of the tribe are at stake, the Montana ruling can be applied.[29] The Montana ruling clearly outlines that a tribe can regulate the activities on non-tribal members if the outside party has entered in a consensual agreement with the tribe, or the safety and security of the tribe are at stake. These two conditions have been used many times by the courts since the ruling was made in 1981, and will continue to be used in nearly every case which involves the jurisdiction of the tribes over non-tribal members.

See also

Montana v. United States at findlaw, justia, oyez, oyez audio


  1. ^ Duthu, Bruce. American Indians and the Law. London: Penguin Books, 2008. Print. Page 37.
  2. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 19.
  3. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 38.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 36.
  6. ^ Goldberg, Carole, Philip P. Frickey, and Kevin K. Washburn. Indian Law Stories. New York: Thomas Reuters/Foundation Press, 2011.
  7. ^ Wishart, David J. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. 2004. Print. Page 458
  8. ^ Wishart. Ibid. Page 458.
  9. ^ Wishart. Ibid. Page 458.
  10. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 37.
  11. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 38.
  12. ^ Montana v. United States. U.S. Supreme Court. 24 Mar. 1981. Print.
  13. ^ Canby Jr., William C. American Indian Law. St. Paul: West, 1981. Print. Page 295.
  14. ^ Wishart, David, and Oliver Froehling. "Land Ownership, Population, and Jurisdiction: The Case of the 'Devils Lake Sioux Tribe v. North Dakota Public Service Commission'." American Indian Culture and Research Journal (1996): pp. 33-58. Print.
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Goldberg. Indian Law Stories. 2011. p. 587
  18. ^ Goldberg. Ibid. p. 582
  19. ^
  20. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 39.
  21. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 39.
  22. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 39.
  23. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page38.
  24. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 45.
  25. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 55.
  26. ^ Duthu. Ibid. Page 55.
  27. ^ Arnott, Sarah. "In the Aftermath of the Bighorn River Decision: Montana Has Title, Indian Law Doctrines are Clouded, and Trust Questions Remain." American Indian Sovereignty and Law: An Annotated Bibliography (2009): 251. Print.
  28. ^ Mitchell, John A. "A World Without tribes? Tribal Rights of Self-Government and the Enforcement of State Court Orders in Indian Country." American Indian Sovereignty and Law: An Annotated Bibliography (2009): 197. Print.
  29. ^ Canby. Ibid. Page 297.

Further Reference

  • Deloria, Jr., Vine, ed. American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1985.
  • Deloria, Jr., Vine and Clifford M Lytle. American Indians, American Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1983.
  • Duthu, N. Bruce. American Indians and the Law. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.
  • Goldberg, Carole, et al. Indian Law Stories. NY: Foundation Press, 2011
  • Johansen, Bruce E. Enduring legacies: Native American Treaties and Contemporary Controversies. Praeger 2004
  • Johansen, Bruce E. The Encyclopedia of Native American Legal Tradition. Greenwood, 1998.
  • Wilkins, David E. American Indian Sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court: The Masking of Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1997.
  • Wilkins, David E. and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark. American Indian Politics and the American Judicial System. Rowman @ Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2011.

External links

  • Text of Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544 (1981) is available from: Justia · Findlaw

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