US Tenth Circuit Court Upholds Wind River Tax Case Dismissal

US Tenth Circuit Court Upholds Wind River Tax Case Dismissal

Carol Berry
10/27/12

On October 18, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals submitted its ruling that the Eastern Shoshone Tribe is indispensable in a tax lawsuit brought by the Northern Arapaho Tribe on the Wind River Reservation, in Wyoming, and since the Shoshone are not included in the lawsuit it can be dismissed by the lower court.

The two tribes undividedly share 1.4 million-acres and resources, part of which lies within the exterior boundaries of the reservation. That area is the focus of the lawsuit where the vehicle and excise taxes are contested. The Arapaho contend that tract technically constitutes Indian country and the state cannot levy taxes there.

The lawsuit, Northern Arapaho Tribe v. Scott Harnsberger, treasurer, Fremont County, Wyoming et al., was filed in 2008 by the Arapaho against county and state tax officials and it brought in as necessary third-party defendants the United States and the Eastern Shoshone, both of which were dismissed based on sovereign immunity. The Arapaho appealed the determination that the litigation could not proceed without the Shoshone and that the status of the land had not been conclusively determined.

The federal appeals court ruled the Shoshone were a required party to the lawsuit because “whether a particular parcel of land is or is not Indian country has significant implications for the governance of that land and the events occurring upon it.”

Some of the land in question was ceded to the U.S. in 1905, but some of the ceded land “has never been restored to the tribes. Put another way, there are lands that lie within the original exterior boundaries of the reservation, which were ceded in the 1905 transaction, but which have never been formally restored to the tribes,” the court said.

“If the area is not Indian country, then the state of Wyoming may continue to exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction over that area, including levying the taxes complained of here,” the court said in the case.

“Indian country” includes reservation land under U.S. jurisdiction, dependent Indian communities under several circumstances and all Indian allotments for which Indian titles have not been extinguished, the court said, without issuing a decision about the Wind River tract’s status in the litigation.

Although the Tenth Circuit upheld the lower court in dismissing the action, it held open the possibility that the case could be re-filed.

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