Water rights among Native Americans is still a highly contested area of law. Even in modern history, the more granular details are still being debated. Matters are only compounded by the federal government’s guardianship over tribal lands. The blurry line of jurisdiction over Indian lands has not been clarified by this paternal arrangement. This fact is demonstrated in the 2001 case Idaho V. United States. The case details the confusion of whether the federal or state government held title lands for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Despite congress having the authority to transfer guardianship duties to the states. However, the function of land allocation has remained mostly with the Department of the Interior.
Idaho V. United States was the byproduct of the federal government suing Idaho over claims of “submerged lands” within the boundaries of the reservation. Since 1873, the tribe has had a claim to part of the St. Joe River and most of Lake Coeur d’Alene. The tribe’s water usage rights being secured at the time of incorporation of the reservation. Congress in 1891, ratified the agreement, the tribe relinquished claims of all lands not included in the 1873 Executive Order. The Coeur d’Alene be compensated for the northern portion of lands ceded by the tribe. Per Oyez:
“The District Court quieted title in the United States as trustee, and the Tribe as beneficiary, to the bed and banks of the lake and the river within the reservation. The Court of Appeals affirmed.”
It is reasonable to question whether the Federal government “holds, title in trust” for the reservation lands that encompass the St. Joe River and Lake Coeur d’Alene? The majority opinion of the Supreme Court sustained the previous findings by the lower courts. Citing that the original Executive Order specified that portions of St. Joe River and Lake Coeur d’Alene be held for the tribe by the National government. That any attempts by the state to obtain or transfer title to the specified bodies of water should be legally obstructed. Per the legal structure under which the reservation was incorporated, this is a valid ruling. The reserved right to water usage is also implied in the establishment of a reservation. See California V. Arizona (1963).
The trust relationship may have initially been implemented to protect the Indian lands from being acquired by the states. However, do the tribes truly own these lands? One of the downsides of the United States holding Indian lands in trust is that the tribes have restrictions on how they can utilize the land. This has led to some controversy regarding the ability to sell and lease water to non-Indians. If an individual owns the property they have the right to do as they please with it. That includes selling their property. The tribes may have their lands protected, but at what cost?