Pursuant to an 1854 treaty, the reservation of the Omaha Indian Tribe (Tribe) was established in the Territory of Nebraska on the west bank of the Missouri River, with the eastern boundary being fixed as the center of the river's main channel. In 1867, a General Land Office survey established that certain land was included in the reservation, but since then, the river has changed course several times, leaving most of the survey area on the Iowa side of the river, separated from the rest of the reservation. Residents of Iowa ultimately settled on and improved this land, and these non-Indian owners and their successors in title occupied the land for many years prior to April 2, 1975, when they were dispossessed by the Tribe, with the assistance of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Three federal actions, consolidated in District Court, were instituted by respondents, the Tribe and the United States as trustee of the reservation lands, against petitioners, including the State of Iowa and several individuals. Both sides sought to quiet title in their names, respondents arguing that the river's movement had been avulsive, and thus did not affect the reservation's boundary, whereas petitioners argued that the disputed land had been formed by gradual accretion and belonged to the Iowa riparian owners. The District Court held that state, rather than federal, law should be the basis of decision; that 25 U.S.C. § 19 -- which provides that,
"[i]n all trials about the right of property in which an Indian may be a party on one side, and a white person on the other, the burden of proof shall rest upon the white person, whenever the Indian shall make out a presumption of title in himself from the fact of previous possession or ownership"
given equitable application of state law, there is little likelihood of injury to federal trust responsibilities or to tribal possessory interests. And this is also an area in which the States have substantial interest in having their own law resolve controversies such as these; there is considerable merit in not having the reasonable expectations, under state real property law, of private landowners upset by the vagaries of being located adjacent to or across from Indian reservations or other property in which the United States has a substantial interest. Cf. Board of Comm'rs v. United States, 308 U. S. 343; Arkansas v. Tennessee, 246 U. S. 158. Pp. 442 U. S. 671-676.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except POWELL, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 442 U. S. 679.
Indian Tribe, supported by the United States as trustee of the Tribe's reservation lands, [Footnote 1] claims the tract as part of reservation lands created for it under an 1854 treaty. Petitioners, including the State of Iowa and several individuals, argue that past movements of the Missouri River washed away part of the reservation and the soil accreted to the Iowa side of the river, vesting title in them as riparian landowners. [Footnote 2]
"In all trials about the right of property in which an Indian may be a party on one side, and a white person on the other, the burden of proof shall rest upon the white person, whenever the Indian shall make out a presumption of title in himself from the fact of previous possession or ownership."
In 1854, the Omaha Indian Tribe ceded most of its aboriginal lands by treaty to the United States in exchange for money and assistance to enable the Tribe to cultivate its retained lands. Treaty of Mar. 16, 1854, 10 Stat. 1043; see United States v. Omaha Indians, 253 U. S. 275, 253 U. S. 277-278 (1920). The retained lands proved unsatisfactory to the Tribe, and it exercised its option under the treaty to exchange those lands for a tract of 300,000 acres to be designated by the President and acceptable to the Tribe. The Blackbird Hills area, on the west bank of the Missouri, all of which was then part of the Territory of Nebraska, was selected. The eastern boundary of the reservation was fixed as the center of the main channel of the Missouri River, the thalweg. [Footnote 3] That land,
In 1867, a survey by T. H. Barrett of the General Land Office established that the reservation included a large peninsula jutting east toward the opposite, Iowa, side of the river, around which the river flowed in an oxbow curve known as Blackbird Bend. [Footnote 5] Over the next few decades, the river changed course several times, sometimes moving east, sometimes west. [Footnote 6] Since 1927, the river has been west of its 1867 position, leaving most of the Barrett survey area on the Iowa side of the river, separated from the rest of the reservation.
Four lawsuits followed the seizure, three in federal court and one in state court. The Federal District Court for the Northern District of Iowa consolidated the three federal actions, severed claims to damages and lands outside the Barrett survey area, and issued a temporary injunction that permitted the Tribe to continue possession. The court then tried the case without a jury. At trial, the Government and the Tribe argued that the river's movement had been avulsive, and therefore the change in location of the river had not affected the boundary of the reservation. Petitioners argued that the river had gradually eroded the reservation lands on the west bank of the river, and that the disputed land on the east bank, in Iowa, had been formed by gradual accretion and belonged to the east-bank riparian owners. [Footnote 7] Both sides sought to quiet title in their names.
Even construed as including the plural, however, it is urged that the word "Indians" does not literally include an Indian tribe, and that it is plain from other provisions of the Act that Congress intended to distinguish between Indian tribes and individual Indians. But as we see it, this proves too much. At the time of the enactment of the predecessors of § 194, Indian land ownership was primarily tribal ownership; aboriginal title, a possessory right, was recognized, and was extinguishable only by agreement with the tribes with the consent of the United States. Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. at 414 U. S. 669-670. Typically, this was accomplished by treaty between the United States and the tribe, and typically the land reserved or otherwise set aside was held in trust by the United States for the tribe itself.
governed by federal law, do not inevitably require resort to uniform federal rules. . . . Whether to adopt state law or to fashion a nationwide federal rule is a matter of judicial policy 'dependent upon a variety of considerations always relevant to the nature of the specific governmental interests and to the effects upon them of applying state law.'"
The federal law applied in boundary cases, however, does not necessarily furnish the appropriate rules to govern this case. No dispute between Iowa and Nebraska as to their common border on or near the Missouri River is involved here. The location of that border on the ground was settled by Compact in 1943 and by further litigation in this Court, Nebraska v. Iowa, 406 U. S. 117 (1972). The federal interest in this respect has thus been satisfied, except to the extent that the Compact itself may bear upon a dispute such as this. United States v. Kimbell Foods, Inc., supra, advises that, at this juncture, we should consider whether there is need for 2b1af7f3a8