Indian Claims Commission

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INDIAN CLAIMS COMMISSION. The U.S. Congress established the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) in August 1946 to adjudicate Native Americans' claims against the federal government for a century's worth of treaty violations, fraudulent land cessions, and financial mismanagement. Expected to last ten years, the three-member ICC operated until September 1978, when the U.S. Court of Claims reassumed jurisdiction over outstanding cases.

The impetus to create the ICC came from three main sources. Native Americans and white political leaders had been calling for a commission separate from the backlogged U.S. Court of Claims since 1910. Assimilationists intent on "terminating" federal guardianship of Native Americans hoped to eliminate a final legal and moral hurdle by "wiping the slate clean" of Indian demands for re-dress. Finally, federal officials wanted to address Native Americans' grievances as a reward for their contributions during World War II and to create a positive record of dealing fairly with America's minorities in the increasingly competitive atmosphere of the Cold War.

Nearly all of the 176 federally recognized Indian nations filed at least one claim before the ICC prior to the 1951 deadline. These filings produced 370 petitions combined by the court into 611 dockets. In most cases, Indian nations claimed the federal government had provided either inadequate or no compensation for land taken from them. Nearly a third of the petitions focused on the government's mismanagement of natural resources or trust funds. Ultimately, the ICC cleared 546 dockets and named

342 awards totaling $818,172,606.64. These judgments ranged from several hundred dollars to $31.2 million.

Native Americans' experiences with the ICC were mixed. Many litigants resented the adversarial nature of its proceedings. Faced with the possibility of awarding billions of dollars, government lawyers battled to defeat the claims and refused to settle out of court. Both sides hired historians and anthropologists as "expert witnesses" to either prove or disprove aboriginal land title. Native Americans also objected to "gratuitous offsets," money the government deducted from awards for services rendered, and rightly complained that the awards did not include interest. In some cases, the government even stipulated how the awards could be spent before releasing funds to the successful plaintiffs. In addition, roughly $100 million went to attorney fees. Several nations did not believe justice could be found in monetary compensation. The Sioux and the Taos Pueblo rejected awards in the hopes of securing a return of their land.

Given the legal complexity, cultural conflicts, and political nature of the proceedings, it is not surprising that the ICC failed to satisfy every constituency. Nevertheless, in an important legacy of the claims process, besides the economic benefits, Native Americans gained valuable legal experience in asserting their sovereignty and in protecting their cultural identities, experience that continued to pay dividends into the twenty-first century.


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

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

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Paul C.Rosier

See alsoIndian Land Cessions ; Indian Policy: U.S.: 1900–2000 .

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