Oneida County v. Oneida Ind. Nation, 470 U.S. 226 (1985)

Author: U.S. Supreme Court

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Oneida County v. Oneida Ind. Nation, 470 U.S. 226 (1985)

County of Oneida, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation

of New York State
No. 83-1065

Argued October 1, 1984
Decided March 4, 1985 *
470 U.S. 226



Respondent Indian Tribes (hereafter respondents) brought an action in Federal District Court against petitioner counties (hereafter petitioners), alleging that respondents’ ancestors conveyed tribal land to New York State under a 1795 agreement that violated the Nonintercourse Act of 1793 -- which provided that no person or entity could purchase Indian land without the Federal Government’s approval -- and that thus the transaction was void. Respondents sought damages representing the fair rental value, for a specified 2-year period, of that part of the land presently occupied by petitioners. The District Court found petitioners liable for wrongful possession of the land in violation of the 1793 Act, awarded respondents damages, and held that New York, a third-party defendant brought into the case by petitioners’ cross-claim, must indemnify petitioners for the damages owed to respondents. The Court of Appeals affirmed the liability and indemnification rulings, but remanded for further proceedings on the amount of damages.


1. Respondents have a federal common law right of action for violation of their possessory rights. Pp. 233-240.

(a) The possessory rights claimed by respondents are federal rights to the lands at issue. Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661, 671. It has been implicitly assumed that Indians have a federal common law right to sue to enforce their aboriginal land rights, and their right of occupancy need not be based on a treaty, statute, or other Government action. Pp. 233-236.

(b) Respondents’ federal common law right of action was not preempted by the Nonintercourse Acts. In determining whether a federal statute preempts common law causes of action, the relevant inquiry is whether the statute speaks directly to the question otherwise answered by federal common law. Here, the 1793 Act did not speak directly to the question of remedies for unlawful conveyances of Indian land, and there is no indication in the legislative history that Congress intended to preempt common law remedies. Milwaukee v. Illinois, 451 U.S. 304, distinguished. And Congress’ actions subsequent to the 1793 Act and later versions thereof demonstrate that the Acts did not preempt common law remedies. Pp. 236-240.

2. There is no merit to any of petitioners’ alleged defenses. Pp. 240-250.

(a) Where, as here, there is no controlling federal limitations period, the general rule is that a state limitations period for an analogous cause of action will be borrowed and applied to the federal action, provided that application of the state statute would not be inconsistent with underlying federal policies. In this litigation, the borrowing of a state limitations period would be inconsistent with the federal policy against the application of state statutes of limitations in the context of Indian claims. Pp. 240-244.

(b) This Court will not reach the issue of whether respondents’ claims are barred by laches where the defense was unsuccessfully asserted at trial but not reasserted on appeal, and thus not ruled upon by the Court of Appeals. Pp. 244-245.

(c) Respondents’ cause of action did not abate when the 1793 Act expired. That Act merely codified the principle that a sovereign act was required to extinguish aboriginal title, and thus that a conveyance without the sovereign’s consent was void ab initio. All subsequent versions of the Act contain substantially the same restraint on alienation of Indian lands. Pp. 245-246.

(d) In view of the principles that treaties with Indians should be construed liberally in favor of the Indians, and that congressional intent to extinguish Indian title must be plain and unambiguous, and will not be lightly implied, the 1798 and 1802 Treaties in which respondents ceded additional land to New York are not sufficient to show that the United States ratified New York’s unlawful purchase of the land in question. Pp. 246-248.

(e) Nor are respondents’ claims barred by the political question doctrine. Congress’ constitutional authority over Indian affairs does not render the claims nonjusticiable, and, a fortiori, Congress’ delegation of authority to the President does not do so either. Nor have petitioners shown any convincing reasons for thinking that there is a need for "unquestioning adherence" to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs’ declining to bring an action on respondents’ behalf with respect to the claims in question. Pp. 248-250.

3. The courts below erred in exercising ancillary jurisdiction over petitioners’ cross-claim for indemnity by the State. The cross-claim raises a question of state law, and there is no evidence that the State has waived its constitutional immunity under the Eleventh Amendment to suit in federal court on this question. Pp. 250-253.

719 F.2d 525, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BLACKMUN and O’CONNOR, JJ., joined, in all but Part V of which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, and in Part V of which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and REHNQIST, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 254. STEVENS, J., filed a separate statement concurring in the judgment in part, post, p. 254, and an opinion dissenting in part, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 255.


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Chicago: U.S. Supreme Court, "Syllabus," Oneida County v. Oneida Ind. Nation, 470 U.S. 226 (1985) in 470 U.S. 226 470 U.S. 227–470 U.S. 229. Original Sources, accessed September 23, 2023,

MLA: U.S. Supreme Court. "Syllabus." Oneida County v. Oneida Ind. Nation, 470 U.S. 226 (1985), in 470 U.S. 226, pp. 470 U.S. 227–470 U.S. 229. Original Sources. 23 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: U.S. Supreme Court, 'Syllabus' in Oneida County v. Oneida Ind. Nation, 470 U.S. 226 (1985). cited in 1985, 470 U.S. 226, pp.470 U.S. 227–470 U.S. 229. Original Sources, retrieved 23 September 2023, from