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ONONDAGA NATION V. THACHER, 189 U. S. 306 (1903)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Onondaga Nation v. Thacher, 189 U.S. 306 (1903)

Onondaga Nation v. Thacher

No. 234

Argued April 8-9, 1903

Decided April 27, 1903

189 U.S. 306


Writ of error dismissed for want of jurisdiction, because no claim of federal right was specially set up or called to the attention of the state court in any way, and that court did not pass upon or necessarily determine any federal question.

This action was originally brought by the Onondaga Nation and Te-has-ha, an Onondaga Indian. Subsequently, several other Onondage Indians, one Seneca Indian, a Cayuga Indian, chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 189 U. S. 307

and the University of the New York were made additional plaintiffs. The ultimate object of the action was to recover from the defendant four wampum belts to which defendant asserted ownership by purchase, but which were averred by the plaintiffs to be the property of a league, or confederacy of Indian tribes, known as the "Ho-de-no-sau-nee." The Onondaga Nation, through an officer selected by it, was averred to be the lawful keeper, or custodian, of said belts. The league or confederacy referred to was also at one time known as the Iroquois Confederacy, as the Five Nations (consisting of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, and Cayuga tribes), and, after the Tuscarora Nation of Indians came into the league, as the Six Nations. By an amendment to the complaint, it was alleged that, on February 26, 1898,

"the Onondaga Nation elected the University of the State of New York to the office of wampum keeper, and, by bill of sale, sold and transferred to the University of the State of New York all its interest in the said wampums,"

and the right to the custody of the belts was alleged to be in said university. These wampum belts were thus described:

"One belt of dark wampum beads, representing the confederation organization of the Five Nations under Hiawatha; one belt representing the first treaty stipulation between the Six Nations and General George Washington, picturing in wampum beadwork the council house, General Washington, the O-do-ta-ho, or president of the tribes, and thirteen representatives of the colonies; also two fragments of other belts, one representing the first approach to the Indians of the 'people with white faces,' and the other, a narrow belt, representing the 'unity of the Five Nations.'"

The complaint contained no allusion to the Constitution, treaties, or statutes of the United States.

In substance the answer contained a recital of the facts connected with the purchase of the belts, and it was asserted that absolute ownership thereof existed in the defendant.

The action was tried at a special term of the Supreme Court of Onondaga County, New York. After the introduction of oral and documentary evidence, the court filed findings of fact chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 189 U. S. 308

and conclusions of law. The defendant was found to be the absolute owner of the property in question; the Onondaga Nation was held not to have legal capacity to sue; the University of the New York was decided not to have such interest in the subject matter of the action as entitled it to bring an action for the recovery of any or either of the wampum belts, and the individual Indians made parties plaintiff were adjudged not to possess such a community of interest with the members of the various tribes constituting the league or confederacy which it was alleged originally owned the belts as to permit the maintenance by them of the action. Beyond statements made in testimony or in recitals of historical facts showing that the general government had made treaties with the confederacy of the Six Nations and with certain of the tribes which had composed the confederacy, and that said treaties had been evidenced by the exchange of belts of wampum, there was not contained in the evidence, or in the findings referred to, or in the judgment rendered, or in the exceptions thereafter filed by the plaintiffs to the findings of the court, any allusion to the Constitution, treaties, or statutes of the United States.

On appeal, the appellate division of the Supreme Court of New York for the Fourth Judicial Department affirmed the judgment of the trial court. An appeal was then taken to the Court of Appeals of the State of New York, and that court affirmed the judgment, 169 N.Y. 584, upon the following per curiam opinion:

"We think the judgment appealed from should be affirmed upon the ground that neither the Onondaga Nation nor the individual Indians named as plaintiffs had legal capacity to bring and maintain the action. Strong v. Waterman, 11 Paige 607; Seneca Nation v. Christie, 126 N.Y. 122; Johnson v. Long Island R. Co., 162 N.Y. 462."

"As to the University of the New York, one of the plaintiffs, the finding of fact by the trial judge"

"that the University of the New York never purchased any or either of the wampum belts mentioned and described in the complaint, and that said University of the New York never was selected or 'raised up' to the position or office of 'wampum

Page 189 U. S. 309

keeper,' and no official proceedings were ever begun on the part of any of the tribes of Indians which formerly composed the Iroquois Confederacy for the purpose of conferring any such position or office upon said University of the New York, assuming that there is or was at the time of said alleged proceedings, any such official position,"

"is supported by evidence, and, the judgment having been affirmed at the appellate division, it is therefore conclusive upon us."

The record and the proceedings in the cause having been remitted to the Supreme Court of Onondaga County, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals having been made the judgment of the lower court, a writ of error was allowed to review this latter judgment.

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