Courtesy Omaha Tribe of Nebraska
Omaha Tribal leaders at the Supreme Court on January 20, 2016.

Omaha Tribe Wins Unanimous Decision at SCOTUS

Suzette Brewer

Yesterday the United States Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision to uphold the right of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska to impose a sales tax on its own land. In their decision, which was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the justices made clear that an 1882 act of Congress that opened up the tribe’s reservation to settlement did not clear the way for continued diminishment of Indian lands.

See the full decision here.

Thomas wrote that, "upsetting the justifiable expectations of the almost exclusively non-Indian settlers who live on the land are compelling, but these expectations alone, resulting from the tribe's failure to assert jurisdiction, cannot diminish reservation boundaries."

“I am pleased that the United States Supreme Court upheld our reservation boundaries and sided on behalf of what is just and right,” said Omaha Tribal Chairman Vernon Miller. “Our treaties can only be diminished with an Act of Congress itself and is a powerful document that should be adhered to by the United States of America. I am especially happy for other tribes facing diminishment issues in that this opinion solidifies the precedent the Supreme Court will follow. I am thankful to each and every person who has advocated for and participated in ensuring that our treaty rights are upheld. The Umonhon People are strong and resilient and will continue to practice our way of life on our land.”

This case arose in 2004 after the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska enacted an alcohol beverage control ordinance regulating and taxing the sale of alcohol within the boundaries of its reservation. According to Miller, the tribe had previously passed several sales taxes on the reservation without incident.

But when the tribe notified the seven liquor stores located in the town of Pender that they would have to pay tribal licensing fees and a 10 percent liquor tax to continue to operate on the reservation, the town of Pender and the liquor stores sued the tribe in federal court in 2007 asking the court to declare that Pender was not within the boundaries of the Omaha Reservation, alleging that an 1882 Act of Congress “diminished” the reservation borders.

In an interview with ICTMN, the Omaha Tribe’s attorney general Maurice Johnson said that the arrival of the opinion was both unexpected and shocking.

“We’re just as shocked today as when the Supreme Court took cert,” Johnson said. “We were not cocky at all, because it was scary. But there are some other tribes, like Little Traverse Bay Band in Michigan, who are also facing diminishment issues and we now have an even stronger precedent to follow. Today is a great reaffirmation of the decision from the Omaha Tribal court Justice Mick Scarmon whose original opinion carried a lot of merit in the final analysis. We also want to thank our Supreme Court attorney Paul Clement, who worked extremely hard on this case. He is one of the best in the world.”

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nja13's picture
Submitted by nja13 on
Are you sure about your opening sentence? It looks like the court ruled that Pender was within the boundaries of the reservation, but it appears that the last section specifically says that the court offers no opinion on whether the tribe can levy taxes on Pender. To quote from the decision you linked in the article: "(d) Because the parties have raised only the single question of diminishment, the Court expresses no view about whether equitable considerations of laches and acquiescence may curtail the Tribe’s power to tax the retailers of Pender.