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Case Note: Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo v. City of El Paso[1]

by: Felisha Adams[2]

Introduction

The Federal Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over a claim by the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo[3] against the city of El Paso, Texas for lands obtained through a Spanish land grant.  Relief for the quiet title action could be sought under state law but not federal law.  Although Indian law and property law were contained within the court’s analysis, this decision relied heavily on civil procedure.

Facts and Background

The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (herein referred to as “Tribe”) is a federally recognized Indian tribe and the only Pueblo in the state of Texas. The Tribe was uprooted from the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico to its current location. The relocation occurred by the Spanish in the 1600’s.  The Spanish then granted property to the Tribe in or around 1751. Subsequently, the United States and Mexico entered into the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which conferred certain property rights to existing Mexican citizens. The Tribe has exercised self-governance since 1682.

The Tribe asserted ownership of 111.73 acres of real property (herein referred to as “Property”).  In doing so, the Tribe sought judicial confirmation of title to the property and to enjoin the City of El Paso (herein referred to as “City”) from claiming any right, title, estate, or interest in the Property. Both the City and Tribe motioned for summary judgement.

Holding

The Federal District Court granted a motion to dismiss in favor of the City solely on subject matter jurisdiction. The rest of the City’s motion was denied. The Tribe’s motion was dismissed without prejudice.  The property issue was not resolved in favor of the Tribe due to a procedural matter.

Relevant Law

This Indian property claim is a unique situation, given most tribes are not expected to be hailed into a state court.[4]  The Court ruled in favor of the City, relying on the areas of property law and Indian law principles.

Generally, the jurisdiction of federal courts is limited to powers authorized by the Constitution and by statue.[5]A case may be dismissed by a court that lacks subject matter jurisdiction[6]. A motion for dismissal for lack of subject matter may be made under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). For the Federal Court to exercise subject matter jurisdiction in this matter, the Tribe must establish (1) they are an Indian tribe; (2) a civil matter in controversy; and (3) that the matter arises under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.[7]

First, declaratory relief must be premised on an independent cause of action because a declaratory judgement is only a procedural device.[8]  A request to quiet title is an independent cause of action for declaratory relief.[9]  There are no federal quiet title causes of action, thus quiet title actions must be settled under state law.[10]

Second, as recognized by Congress, claims for Indian title through an explicit provision in a treaty or statute, and aboriginal title to land occupied by Indians since time immemorial, both fall exclusively under federal jurisdiction.[11] The Pueblo Lands Act of 1924 applies to New Mexico Pueblos.[12]

Analysis

The primary issue was whether the third element of a claim arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States was met.  The Tribe asserted that the Court had federal subject matter jurisdiction over its property claim based on the Tribe’s Indian status and non-aboriginal right of occupancy rights provided by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.[13] The Court found there was not a federal question because (1) the cause of action may be resolved under state law, and (2) the Property is not a federally derived right, nor does it involve a federal issue.[14]

The Tribe’s cause of action for declaratory relief is based on state law.  The Court cited to case law that explained that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo does not explicitly or impliedly provide for private action.[15] Additionally, the Court reasoned that the case law sufficiently established that a claim dependent on a treaty does not automatically establish federal jurisdiction.[16]  The Tribe did not establish any other federal law or treaty cause of action that arose under the federal question doctrine.[17]  Thus, without more than the mere presence of a treaty to raise a federal question, the Tribe must raise a quiet title claim under state law.

The Tribe’s asserted right to the Property is not a federally derived Indian property right.  The Court distinguished the Tribe’s claim from the successful Indian title claim in Oneida Indian Nation v. City  of Oneida in three ways. First, the Tribe could not establish aboriginal title because of the Tribe’s relocation and land grant by Spain proved that they did not occupy the Property since time immemorial.[18] Second, the non-aboriginal right of occupancy derived from another sovereign and was not guaranteed by a United States treaty or statute.[19]

Third, there were no subsequent congressional acts to recognize or secure Property rights for the Tribe in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.[20]  The Supreme Court has stated that matters relevant to the Tribe’s claim are solely within Congress’s power.[21]  Here, there were no claims by the Tribe showing subsequent negotiations with the United States that would have established special property rights similar to other tribes such as the Apache, Navajo and Ute Indians.[22] Further, since El Paso is not in New Mexico, the City is not subject to quiet title claims under the Pueblo Lands Act of 1924.[23]  The Nonintercourse Act may apply to this case, however the Tribe did not assert a Nonintercourse Act claim in its original pleading, and so the Court prohibited a new claim during the summary judgment stage in accordance with Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a).[24]  Thus, without congressional recognition or guarantee, the Tribe did not establish federally derived Property rights.

Conclusion

The Tribe’s quiet title action does not arise under federal law because the controversy was not provided relief by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo nor any federal law.  The Tribe does not have a federally derived property right because Congress did not exercise its power to recognize or secure the Tribe’s right to the Property under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.  Without a federal right, there was no federal subject matter jurisdiction.  

Takeaway

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo does not explicitly provide Indians with a federal cause of action against states because the treaty does not have federally recognized or secured property rights.  For a federally recognized Indian tribe to bring an aboriginal or non-aboriginal Indian property controversy in a federal court, the Indian tribe must show that their property right is recognized and secured by the Constitution or independent statutes or treaties of the United States.

Lastly, the holding is without prejudice so there may still be an opportunity for the Tribe to establish a valid property right under federal jurisdiction, especially under subsequent federal statutes.  Additionally, there is no mention of any federal trust responsibilities, Indian policy, or other property principles such as reliance.  This case note is limited to the information specific to the case.   


[1] Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo v. City of El Paso, No. EP-17-CV-00162-DCG, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6592 (W.D. Tex. Jan. 15, 2020).

[2] Felisha Adams is a second-year law student at the University of New Mexico School of Law. Felisha graduated magna cum laude from Diné College with a BA in Business Administration and Tribal Economic Development and is a proud PLSI alumni.  Felisha is a member of the Navajo Nation who came from Iyanbito, NM to Albuquerque, NM to obtain an Indian law certificate in addition to her Juris Doctor. Her future plans include applying her business, cultural, educational, and legal experience towards supporting sovereignty and tribal economic development.

[3] For more information about Ysleta del Sur Pueblo visit their website at  https://www.ysletadelsurpueblo.org.

[4] See Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832) (ruling that state laws could not be imposed on Indian nations).

[5] Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, supra note 1, at ¶ 4-5.

[6] Id

[7] Id. at 7-8

[8] Id. at 10-11.

[9] Id

[10] Id

[11] Id. at 14-17; See also Oneida Indian Nation v. Cty. of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661, 663 (1974) (holding that Indian title is a matter of federal law and can only be extinguished with federal consent). 

[12] Id. at 26.

[13] Id. at 3.

[14] Id. at 10.

[15] Id. at 10-13.

[16] Id. at 11-12.

[17] Id. at 13.

[18] Id. at 17-18.

[19] Id. at 18-19.

[20] Id. at 19-20.

[21] Id. at 21-22.

[22] Id. at 24.

[23] Id. at 26.

[24] Id. at 27-28.

By Tribal Law Journal Blog

The Tribal Law Journal was established in fall 1998 for the purpose of promoting indigenous self-determination by facilitating discussion of the internal law of the world’s indigenous nations. The internal law of indigenous nations encompasses traditional law, western law adopted by indigenous nations, and a blend of western and indigenous law. Underscoring this purpose is the recognition that traditional law is a source of law.

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