This Day in History 1955: U.S. Supreme Court Uses Religious Justification to Deny Legitimate Indigenous Property Rights

On this day in history, Feb. 7, 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling based on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery to deny the Tee-Hit-Ton Indians any compensation for the timber the U.S. government allowed to be sold off their lands.

In the ruling Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, the Court used 15th Century reasoning to exert domination over “an ignorant and dependent race,” treating them not as land owners but as mere tenants. These tenants, the ruling said, are allowed to stay there only “as a matter of grace” by the United States.

Justice Stanley Forman Reed. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A quick primer on the Doctrine of Discovery: The Pope issued a series of bulls, or decrees, in the 15th and 16th Centuries that collectively have become known as the Doctrine of Discovery. They provided the legal and religious justification for European monarchs to send explores to “discover” new lands and claim them (as long as no Christians beat them to it).

The “Discovery Doctrine” was put into U.S. law through a series of 19th Century U.S. Supreme Court decisions and still applies today.

(For more, click here, or buy the documentary: “Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” which includes a discussion of the Tee-Hit-Ton case.)

Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States

The basic facts of the case are as follows. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture authorized timber sales on Tee-Hit-Ton lands. The Tee-Hit-Ton sued for compensation. The federal government used a Doctrine of Discovery-based argument that the Tee-Hit-Ton didn’t own the land, they just got to occupy it — and the court agreed.

Justice Stanley Forman Reed wrote the opinion, saying “Congress did not intend to grant the Tee-Hit-Ton any permanent rights to the occupied lands but had given them permission to occupy it,” according to the Wikipedia summary. “Under the concept of conquest, any title to the land was extinguished when the ‘white man’ came …”

One wrinkle to this story: The Tee-Hit-Ton are in Alaska, part of the Tlingit people. While Justice Reed cites the “concept of conquest,” there wasn’t a conquest here. The United States had purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. (Alaska would not become a U.S. state until 1958, three years after this case was decided.) The Tee-Hit-Ton had original title, a reality somehow magically erased by an international land deal.

According to Reed’s decision:

It was further held that if such original Indian title survived the Treaty of 1867, … by which Russia conveyed Alaska to the United States, such title was not sufficient basis to maintain this suit as there had been no recognition by Congress of any legal rights [of the Tee-Hit-Ton] to the land in question.

Comment: To translate, this is Supreme Court speak for: “Because I said so.”

This decision is not that long ago, within the lifetime of anyone who is 64 or older. Justice Reed’s decision uses tortured moral logic and reflects a clear view of white Christian supremacy:

It is to be presumed that in this matter the United States would be governed by such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people in their treatment of an ignorant and dependent race….

No case in this Court has ever held that taking of Indian title or use by Congress required compensation. The American people have compassion for the descendants of those Indians who were deprived of their homes and hunting grounds by the drive of civilization. They seek to have the Indians share the benefits of our society as citizens of this Nation. Generous provision has been willingly made to allow tribes to recover for wrongs, as a matter of grace, not because of legal liability.

Comment 1: Consider the statement: “… in this matter the United States would be governed by such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people…” This decision doesn’t speak well for the Christian concept of justice.

Comment 2: Consider the statement: “The American people have compassion for the descendants of those Indians who were deprived of their homes and hunting grounds by the drive of civilization.”  The way Reed wrote this passage obscures the truth about how indigenous peoples lost their homes. Rhe sentence be clear on who did the “depriving.” More accurately, it should read: “U.S. policymakers — and European settlers in search of land and resources — deprived Indians of their homes and hunting grounds.” The harm was done by individual and collective action, not by some disembodied “drive for civilization.”

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