Quick Bear v. Leupp illustrated the complexity of protecting First Amendment religious rights for American Indians by tacitly supporting the establishment of Catholic education on the Rosebud Reservation.
By 1908, the U.S. government had for more than a century pursued assimilation policies for Native Americans. Such policies included establishing schools and other educational programs and encouraging Christian missionary activity among tribes. By the late 1800s, the government provided funding for a number of sectarian schools on reservations using a combination of public money, money from treaty payments to tribes, and, at least in the case at hand, money from a trust fund generated by the sale of Sioux land. During the 1890s, opposition to spending public funds on sectarian Indian education led Congress to begin phasing out the practice in 1895. In 1899, Congress made its final appropriation of public funds for Native American sectarian education.
On the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, this left tribal funds as the only support for the St. Francis Mission Boarding School. The Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for a contract to provide education at Rosebud, which it supported with a petition signed by 212 tribal members. Meanwhile, non-Catholic clergy and Rosebud residents affiliated with the Indian Rights Association opposed continued funding of sectarian schools and fought the contract. Reuben Quick Bear, a Protestant, and two other Lakotas filed suit against Francis E. Leupp, commissioner of Indian Affairs, and others requesting a permanent injunction to prevent using treaty and trust fund monies to support sectarian schools.
They believed such funding violated the aforementioned policy, specifically the Indian Appropriations Act (1897), which said, ‘‘[I]t is hereby declared to be the settled policy of the government to hereafter make no appropriation whatever for education in any sectarian school.’’ The plaintiffs argued that the Rosebud Sioux tribe had not requested the expenditure. Rather, the Department of Interior approved the payments from tribal treaty and trust funds. Because treaty obligations required the U.S. government to provide educational services, the plaintiffs argued that the government’s action converted tribal funds into public funds used to establish a religion.
The defendants argued that treaty and trust fund monies were not public funds and could be used to fulfill governmental treaty obligations. Furthermore, they pointed to the petition and argued that the 212 signatories held claims to tribal funds exceeding the value of the St. Francis Mission School contract. The supreme court of the District of Columbia approved using trust money, but not treaty funds. On appeal, the district court approved use of treaty and tribal funds.
In affirming the lower court’s ruling, Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller, writing for the U.S. Supreme Court, found that treaty and trust fund monies belonged to the Sioux and were not public funds. Native Americans, Fuller ruled, should be able to spend their money as they chose in educating their children. Furthermore, Fuller found that preventing use of tribal funds for sectarian education would amount to prohibiting free exercise of religion. Critics have argued, though, that the decision supported the establishment of Christianity at Rosebud. Although Fuller did not try to overrule emerging case law holding the Bill of Rights did not apply to Native Americans, he came closer to that point than any of his Supreme Court brethren had to date.
References and Further Reading