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decided: November 15, 1886.




Author: Matthews

[ 119 U.S. Page 25]

 MR. JUSTICE MATTHEWS, after stating the case as above reported, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The general purpose of this suit is a judicial settlement of all existing controversies between the Choctaw Nation and the United States. The specific claims of the Choctaw Nation are stated in the petition in the alternative. It is claimed, in the first instance, that the award of the Senate, and the amount found due as a balance upon the account between the parties, stated upon the principles of that award, should either be enforced as a finality by the judgment of the court in the present case, or that, if not technically enforceable as an award, it still furnishes a rule for an equitable settlement of the differences between the parties. But, in the second place, it is claimed that if the award cannot be considered in either of these lights, then the whole controversy and all questions involved

[ 119 U.S. Page 26]

     in it, from the beginning, under any of the treaties between the parties, are open for investigation and decision upon their original merits. And under this head the Choctaw Nation claim compensation for various breaches, on the part of the United States, of the treaty of September 27, 1830, and, in general, such a failure on its part to comply with its provisions, as in substance deprived the Choctaw Nation of all the benefits intended to be conferred by it, for which it is claimed they are entitled to an equitable equivalent as compensation.

In respect to so much of the petitioner's case as rests upon specific failures to comply with the provisions of article 14 of that treaty, as to those Choctaw heads of families who claimed reservations within its terms and did not receive them, the government of the United States relies upon the release executed by the Choctaw Nation in pursuance of the requirements of the act of July 21, 1852, under which a payment of $872,000 was made in satisfaction of the amounts awarded the Choctaw claimants under that article of the treaty of 1830.

The Court of claims, as it appears, declined to give any legal effect whatever to the award made by the Senate under the treaty of 1855, feeling constrained to that conclusion by the terms of the act of March 3, 1881, conferring jurisdiction upon it in this suit, and on the other hand, it gave all the effect claimed by the United States for the release under the act of 1852. Its judgment in favor of the Choctaw Nation was made up as follows:

For claims under the 14th article of the treaty of

1830, not covered by the release of 1852 $417,656.00

For claims under the 19th article of the treaty of

1830 42,920.00

For land taken in fixing the boundary of the

State of Arkansas and the Choctaw Nation 68,102.00

For transportation and subsistence under the

treaty of 1830 51,993.00

For unpaid annuities 59,449.32

For guns, ammunition, &c 18,000.00

Total $658,120.32

[ 119 U.S. Page 27]

     And it credited the balance thus found due with a payment made under the act of March 2, 1861, of $250,000.

In reviewing the controversy between the parties presented by this record, it is important and necessary to consider and dispose of some preliminary questions. The first relates to the character of the parties, and the nature of the relation they sustain to each other. The United States is a sovereign nation, not suable in any court except by its own consent, and upon such terms and conditions as may accompany that consent, and is not subject to any municipal law. Its government is limited only by its own Constitution, and the nation is subject to no law but the law of nations. On the other hand, the Choctaw Nation falls within the description in the terms of our Constitution, not of an independent state or sovereign nation, but of an Indian tribe. As such, it stands in a peculiar relation to the United States. It was capable under the terms of the Constitution of entering into treaty relations with the government of the United States, although, from the nature of the case, subject to the power and authority of the laws of the United States when Congress should choose, as it did determine in the act of March 3, 1871, embodied in ยง 2079 of the Revised Statutes, to exert its legislative power.

As was said by this court recently in the case of the United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375, 383: "These Indian tribes are the wards of the nation; they are communities dependent on the United States; dependent largely for their daily food; dependent for their political rights. They owe no allegiance to the States and receive from them no protection. Because of the local ill-feeling, the people of the States where they are found are often their deadliest enemies. From their very weakness and helplessness, so largely due to the course of dealing of the Federal Government with them, and the treaties in which it has been promised, there arises the duty of protection, and with it the power. This has always been recognized by the Executive, and by Congress, and by this court, whenever the question has arisen."

It had accordingly been said in the case of Worcester v. Georgia, 6 Pet. 515, 582: "The language used in treaties with

[ 119 U.S. Page 28]

     the Indians should never be construed to their prejudice. If words be made use of which are susceptible of a more extended meaning than their plain import, as connected with the tenor of the treaty, they should be considered as used only in the latter sense. . . . How the words of the treaty were understood by this unlettered people, rather than their critical meaning, should form the rule of construction."

The recognized relation between the parties to this controversy, therefore, is that between a superior and an inferior, whereby the latter is placed under the care and control of the former, and which, while it authorizes the adoption on the part of the United States of such policy as their own public interests may dictate, recognizes, on the other hand, such an interpretation of their acts and promises as justice and reason demand in all cases where power is exerted by the strong over those to whom they owe care and protection. The parties are not on an equal footing, and that inequality is to be made good by the superior justice which looks only to the substance of the right, without regard to technical rules framed under a system of municipal jurisprudence, formulating the rights and obligations of private persons, equally subject to the same laws.

The rules to be applied in the present case are those which govern public treaties, which, even in case of controversies between nations equally independent, are not to be read as rigidly as documents between private persons governed by a system of technical law, but in the light of that larger reason which constitutes the spirit of the law of nations. And it is the treaties made between the United States and the Choctaw Nation, holding such a relation, the assumptions of fact and of right which they presuppose, the acts and conduct of the parties under them, which constitute the material for settling the controversies which have arisen under them. The rule of interpretation already stated, as arising out of the nature and relation of the parties, is sanctioned and adopted by the express terms of the treaties themselves. In the 11th article of the ...

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