Yankton Sioux Tribe loses appeal on land transfer

By Chet Brokaw
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) June 2010

A federal appeals court during early June rejected the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s attempt to prevent the transfer of two federal recreation areas along the Missouri River to the state of South Dakota.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge’s ruling that found the recreation areas near Fort Randall Dam are not located within the boundaries of the tribe’s reservation in southeastern South Dakota.

That means the tribe cannot block the transfer of the 971-acre North Point Recreation area just above Fort Randall Dam and the nearby 44-acre White Swan Lakeside Use Area, also on Lake Francis Case. The ruling also allows the state’s lease of the 70-acre Spillway Recreation Area at the dam from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The recreation areas were included in an extensive transfer of Corps of Engineers land along the Missouri River reservoirs to the state. Congress passed a law in 1999 transferring shoreline to the state for recreation and fish and wildlife uses.

Neil Fulton, chief of staff for Gov. Mike Rounds, said the decision makes it clear the state has legal authority to manage the recreation areas and enforce its laws on that land.

“Obviously, the litigation about the exact boundaries of the Yankton reservation has been ongoing and complicated. Clarity is very important to everyone involved – the tribe, the corps and the state,” Fulton said.

Attorneys for the tribe did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.

The lawsuit on the land transfer has been intertwined with another case, a lengthy legal dispute on the extent of the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s reservation.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol of Sioux Falls has ruled that at least a small part of the once-huge Yankton Sioux reservation continues to exist and remains under the legal jurisdiction of the federal and tribal governments. The state has argued that the reservation was disestablished, or terminated, in the late 1800s.

The appeals court earlier upheld Piersol’s ruling that the reservation covers more than 30,000 acres, which is mostly land the government holds in trust for the tribe and individual tribal members.

The appeals panel noted that a decision on the recreation areas had been deferred pending a decision in the case that determined the extent of the reservation.

The tribe had argued that the recreation areas could not be transferred to the state under the 1999 law because those areas were within the external boundaries of the reservation.

But the appeals judges agreed with Piersol that the land could be transferred to the state because it was no longer part of the reservation.

Some of the land was allotted to individual tribal members but later sold to non-Indians. Other parcels that had continued to be held by individual tribal members was sold to the Corps of Engineers when the reservoirs were built decades ago, so that land also is no longer part of the reservation, the appeals panel said.