The Pine Ridge Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Photo: James Pendleton / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Jeffrey Whalen: Rancher takes on the Bureau of Indian Affairs and wins

Pine Ridge rancher fight BIA and wins

By Jeffrey Whalen
Native Sun News Today Columnist

Curtis Temple is a rancher who has lived near Rockyford all of his life. His ranch has been in his family for approximately 85 years and was passed down through his grandfather and from his father. Within the last several years the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to take action against Curtis to confiscate or "steal" at least 400 plus head of cattle.

I've been writing about leasing of Indian lands recently, mostly because of my friendship with Curtis and being close to the issue that he has been experiencing in terms of what he says was cattle theft by the BIA.

The Tribal Allocation Committee is a committee who consists of one representative from each of the nine districts on Pine Ridge. They're task is to review all of the lease submittals and the make recommendations as to who qualifies for such leases.

A dispute started around 2013 when the Allocation Committee granted a lease to another rancher up on Red Shirt Table near the Northwestern part of the reservation. The lease happened to be a lease that was previously held by Curtis for quite a long time. I haven't attempted to speak with the other rancher so I can't reasonably provide further details of what had transpired. What I can write is that there was a disagreement with leasing which got out of hand and ended up with the BIA confiscating a large portion of Curtis's cattle.

Curtis ended up getting a federal criminal charge placed against him that claimed he had destroyed federal property. The claim was that his cattle trespassed and damaged portions of several range units and in the process the BIA claimed that the damages totaled nearly $5,000.00. Because the alleged damage totaled more than $1,000.00, Curtis received an Indictment by a Federal Grand Jury and was charged with Destruction of Government Property. He didn't take this lying down and decided to fight it by hiring a handful of attorneys to help defend his cause.

As he enters the fifth year of legal battles against the BIA, Curtis finally got some good news a few days ago. There was a federal Magistrate court who wrote an opinion that basically indicated that the BIA did not have authority to claim that the property of the United States was damaged.


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This is important for the folks in the 8th Circuit to understand if they live on an Indian Reservation, and own land that is held in Trust by the United States. The BIA's reasoning for claiming that Curtis damaged federal property is because they claim that his cattle was trespassing on lands that were held in trust by them in the name of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and lands that were being held trust by them for individual tribal members.

Because the BIA held these lands in trust they automatically assumed that they also held the title in the name of the United States. This is where they were proven to be dead wrong. The title to individual Indian owned lands held in trust and the title to tribal lands held in trust does not belong to the United States. The title belongs to the individual land owner for their personal lands, and land titles also belongs to lands that tribes own as a whole. When this type of land is sold, the money does not go to the United States, rather it goes either to the individual who sold the land or the tribe who sold the land. However, in the case of the Oglalas, there is constitutional language that prohibits the tribe from selling tribal land.

In the Indictment, the government claimed that Curtis damaged United States property but after looking at all of the Title Status Reports for all of the land tracts that were listed as being damaged, it was proven that the government only actually owned a small sliver of land in one of those units, and that land was not leased out, and was not listed by the government as being damaged.

To add insult to injury, some of the land that the government was claiming to be damaged actually belonged to Curtis Temple himself. The government apparently took the position that they could charge Curtis with damaging his own property. The government claims that since they held the title in trust, that they also owned his land. How crazy is that? To be sure, the government does not own any type of Indian lands that are being held by them in trust.

Jeffrey Whalen. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

So several years ago, the BIA at Pine Ridge Agency claimed that Curtis Temple was in trespass and had damaged government property by allegedly overgrazing. So as a response, the government and in Curtis's words, "stole" over 400 head of his cattle. If we look at the court documents in Curtis's decision, there is a reference to 25 U.S.C. Sec. 179 which imposes a civil penalty for driving livestock to feed on Indian lands, and states; "Every person who drives or otherwise conveys any stock of horses, mules, or cattle, to range and feed on any land belonging to any Indian or Indian tribe, without the consent of such tribe, is liable to a penalty of $1 for each animal of such stock."

There is also a section in the tribal grazing code that imposes criminal penalties for livestock trespass which reads, "Any Indian who shall...willfully and knowingly allow livestock to occupy or graze on the cultivated or other lands, shall be deemed guilty of an offense and upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not to exceed five dollars with costs, in addition to any award of damages for the benefit of the injured party."

The BIA "stole" more than $400,000.00 worth of Curtis Temple's cattle. They had absolutely no authority to do so. Even if they had authority, according to the two citations in the previous two paragraphs, the BIA could have only charged Curtis around $405.00 total for their fines. Talk about a huge injustice by the United States of American government against a tribal member! Oh yeah, remember the WOUNDED KNEE MASSACRE?

There is another citation in the Magistrate court’s decision that addresses a section in the American Indian Agricultural Resource Management Act or AIARMA at 25 U.S.C. Sec. 3701-3746. "AIARMA's stated purpose includes promoting Indian self-determination by strengthening tribal authority over the management of Indian lands, and enabling Indian farmers and ranchers to maximize the potential benefits available to them through their land."

In the case of the federal government stealing Curtis Temple's cattle, the powers that be are not quite finished with attempting to run him out of business. First, AIARMA's stated purpose does not even come close to what the BIA was supposed to do. Rather than maximizing potential benefits, the BIA attempted to totally ruin Curtis Temple and his ranching operation. Now the Oglala Sioux Tribe through its corrupt and constitutionally wrong Grazing Code and through the tribes Land Committee, they are still denying Curtis leases and are even going as far as denying him the use of running cattle ON HIS OWN LAND.

Neither the tribe nor the BIA has any type of authority to deny Curtis's right to utilize his own land, but yet, we still see a continued and coordinated effort to ruin Curtis's cattle operation, ruin Curtis's business and way of life. This should never be tolerated by anyone.

This current tribal administration came in with the intention on addressing economic issues to provide jobs, products, marketability, cash flow and other interesting things to increase our well-being. Instead, they closed down and took over the Oglala-Ridge Store, they tried their best to shut down Curtis Temple's cattle business. They caught onto and continued with the good old boys methods of taking tribal money for themselves.

The United States Magistrate Judge in court case 5:17-CR-50062-JLV has recommended that the defendant’s motion to dismiss the Indictment be granted. The court has totally recognized that the Bureau of Indian Affairs does not have any authority to claim that Curtis's Temple's cattle damaged federal property. The allegation did not prove at all that there was any federal property damaged. Curtis was facing 10 long years in prison, has had several years of worrying about his future. He fought hard and was extremely determined to prove the United States government wrong.

This decision is a game changer. The BIA must change their evil way of thinking and even more important the Oglala Sioux Tribe must revise their unconstitutional and illegal Grazing Code to actually benefit the ranchers and land owners as it is spelled out in AIARMA.

(Contact Jeffrey Whalen at

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