Plaintiffs, an Alaskan tribe, argue that they have full ownership of the disputed property – which is a national forest – because they have resided there as a tribe for centuries. At a minimum, Plaintiffs argue they have right to “unrestricted possession.” Part of their ownership claim is to recover money from sold timber. The US government uses timber from the forest and sells it. Plaintiffs claim that they have a right to be compensated for the use of their land and sold timber under the Fifth Amendment.
The “court of claims” held that Plaintiffs had an original Indian title to the land. However, such title is not sufficient to justify compensation because it had not been officially recognized by Congress. The original title and relevant statutes cited by Plaintiffs do not affirm any permanent claim or rights to the land. They occupied lands by permission of Congress, but nowhere has Congress affirmed their right to permanent occupancy such that Plaintiffs should be compensated for use of timber on the land.
Whether Native Americans have a “permanent right” to land that Congress has given them authorization to occupy.
No. When Congress grants authorization to occupy it does not automatically and simultaneously grant a “permanent right” to the land. While Congress has the authority to grant permanent right, they must do so explicitly or demonstrate some “definite intention” to grant the permanent right. In the instant case, no intention can be demonstrated in any of the cited authorities. The Plaintiffs have a right to occupy the land; but such right to occupy is only granted by Congress, and as such, can be terminated by Congress. Congress’s grant of occupancy does protect Plaintiffs’ land from interference from outside parties; however, it is currently claimed that the Federal Government itself is the interfering party. The United States Government – because they are the sovereign that granted the right of occupancy – cannot be legitimately be a claimed as a third-party interferer. As such, Plaintiff has no right to compensation.