This Supreme Court case arose from a dispute concerning the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 regarding the the Kiowa-Comanche reservation in present-day Oklahoma. The treaty guaranteed the Kiowa and Comanche “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of these reservation lands and stipulated that in order for any portion of the reservation lands to be ceded to the U.S., three-fourths of the adult males in the tribe had to give their approval.
In 1900, without Native American consent, Congress passed an Allotment Act that divided the Kiowa-Comanche lands into 160-acre allotments to offer to the Native American residents of the reservation. Those who accepted the allotments were also given American citizenship. The “surplus” lands left after the allotment were to be sold to whites, and the Kiowa and Comanche were to receive about one dollar per acre for these lands. This opened some 2 million acres of reservation lands to settlement by non-Indians.
On August 6, 1901, with the official opening of the former Kiowa-Comanche-Apache (Plains Apache) Reservation (KCA), holders of the “lucky numbers” swept across the prairies in a mad rush to claim homesteads, as the Oklahoma History Center reports, noting that “[m]issionaries on the former reservation, now called the KCA Jurisdiction, lamented the high crime rates, drunkenness, unsanitary conditions, and diseases in [the] rag towns.”
The KCA Indians were now less than ten percent of the total population, but soon found that even what was left to them was being overrun by trespassers and squatters who “adamantly believed that they were entitled to stake out mineral rights.”
Lone Wolf, a Kiowa Indian chief, filed a complaint on behalf of the tribes in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, alleging that Congress’ change violated the 1867 treaty. That court dismissed the case. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the decision. Lone Wolf and the tribes then appealed to the Supreme Court.
In Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, 187 U.S. 553 (1903), Justice Edward White delivered the opinion of the unanimous court in which it found, as summarized by the late legal scholar Milner S. Ball in “Constitution, Court, Indian Tribes” (1987 Am. B. Found. Res. J. 1, 54, 1987) that “Congress is given power to violate treaties with Indian nations and to exercise control over Indian lands without basis or limit in law.”
Specifically, the Court found that a treaty “cannot be adjudged to materially limit and qualify the controlling authority of Congress in respect to the care and protection of the Indians . . . . Congress has always exercised plenary authority over the tribal relations of the Indians and the power has always been deemed a political one not subject to be controlled by the courts.”
Justice White gave as his rationale a citation from a previous case [United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375 (1886)] in which the Court argued:
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 own 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.”
Professor Ball wrote that subsequent Courts continued to consider Lone Wolf “viable and acceptable,” offering examples of affirmations of the finding given by Justices Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens, and Harry Blackmun. (Ball, pp. 54-5)