Legal claims are inherently disruptive. Plaintiffs’ suits invariably seek to unsettle the status quo. On occasion, the remedies to legal claims can be so disruptive-that is, impossible to enforce or implement in a fair and equitable manner-that courts simply will not issue them. In the area of federal Indian law, American Indian tribal claims not only disrupt the status quo but may even disrupt so-called settled expectations of those affected by the claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has dismissed a round of Indian land claims at the pleading stage, including Onondaga Nation v. New York, because it considered the claims so disruptive.
We agree that Indian legal claims are inherently disruptive and may implicate the centuries-old settled expectations of state and local governments and non-Indians. It is empirically and categorically false, however, that the remedies tribal interests seek are impossible to enforce or implement in a fair or equitable manner. Every year in cases against state governments and their political subdivisions, Indian tribes settle long-standing claims that at their outset, often appear intractable, if not downright impossible, to remedy. The recent settlements of claims by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, and five Michigan Anishinaabe tribes demonstrate the falsehood of the idea that Indian claims are too disruptive to be remedied. These negotiated settlements powerfully illustrate that the disruption produced by Indian claims has an important function: forcing federal, state, and tribal governments to creatively seek solutions to difficult governance issues in Indian country.
Part I of this Essay describes recent common law, which dismisses Indian claims on the grounds that they are too disruptive. Part II briefly surveys the history of the relationship between Indians and the United States. Part III describes recent settlements between tribal and local governments. Part IV presents our theory of tribal disruption based on notions of ecological disturbance, studied in ecology and related fields. We argue that ecological disturbance in linked social-ecological systems offers a useful analog to the disruptive nature of Indian claims. These claims can be compared to disturbances in rivers, forests, or other ecosystems. Floods, forest fires, and windstorms break down existing structures, allowing space for reorganization, diversification, and new growth. Tribal claims similarly clear out a legal space for creative and improved governance institutions.
Kathryn Fort has posted a draft of her paper, Disruption and Impossibility: New Laches and the Unfortunate Resolution of the Iroquois Land Claims in Federal Court, forthcoming in the Wyoming Law Review as part of an Indian law symposium, on SSRN.
Here is the abstract:
That the law changes over time is no secret. That the law changes based on the parties involved is less obvious, but still no secret. In the case of the Haudenosaunee land claims cases, however, the law shifted dramatically and quickly based entirely on the identity of the parties. In less than five years, the federal appellate courts changed the law so drastically to all but end more than thirty years of modern litigation, reversing years of relative fairness at the district court level. These actions required a fundamental shift in the law of equity: the creation of a new equitable defense for governments against Indian land claims. How the courts accomplished so much in such a short amount of time requires a close reading of the cases and a few logical leaps.
The first part of this article will give a brief history of the New York land claims, focusing on the Oneida Indian Nation and the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York. While the tribes have been fighting the status of this land since the original agreements were signed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, this article looks to the modern era of land claims in the federal courts. The second part of this article will review how a decision in the Oneida claims case directly informed City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation. The third part will focus on the Cayuga Nation line of cases and how Cayuga Indian Nation of New York v. Pataki changed the fundamental understanding of the equitable defense of laches into a new defense used to defeat tribal land claims. Finally, the fourth part of this article will look closely at the most recent loss, Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, where the court admits the creation of a new equitable defense. This defense, identified as “new laches” or “Indian law laches” is a defense that can prevent even the bringing of a land claim in the courts. The defense is no longer traditional laches, but rather an equitable defense that follows none of the rules of equity, and exists only in federal Indian law.