Michigan Court of Appeals: Moses v. Dept. of Corrections

Earlier this year, the Michigan Court of Appeals decided Moses v. Dept. of Corrections, a case brought by a convict who committed a crime on the Isabella Reservation near Mt. Pleasant. He brought a habeas claim on the basis that the parcel of land on which he committed the crime was “Indian Country” and outside the state’s jurisdiction. He lost. We’re looking up the briefs of the case right now, but the decision rested on the federal Swamp Lands Act. In short, according to the COA, Congress granted certain swamp lands to the State in 1862, lands that otherwise would have become part of the Isabella reservation, so that those lands are not nor ever were Indian Country.

The Moses Court relied on a previous Mich. COA case, People v. Bennett, 491 N.W.2d 866 (1992), which included this language:

In this case, the parties have not presented evidence of the negotiations surrounding the formation of the Treaty of October 18, 1864. However, examining the treaty itself, it appears that the parties intended for the previously sold lands to be excluded from the reservation, because the Chippewas were granted all the “unsold” lands within the six townships. Given the plain language of the treaty, and the lack of evidence to the contrary, we believe the Chippewas would have understood at the time of treaty formation that they were not permitted to settle on or own any lands previously patented to individuals. [emphasis added]

It’s fairly difficult for me to believe that the Ogemuk knew about the Swamp Land Act in 1864, especially given that most Indian agents of the day supposedly schooled in India-related laws and regulations had no clue. And to have attributed to them this knowledge, when they did not speak English, on the basis that the plain language is the plain language, is a sad joke. Of course, the Supreme Court cases on treaty interpretation do the same thing.

This proves once again that tribal reservation boundaries should only be litigated after the tribe has done its research. And it is unfortunate that so many of these cases arise in the context of criminal law where convicts or defendants are seeking to vacate a conviction on jurisdictional bases. Courts there are just looking for any out.