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decided: June 10, 1985.



Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and White, Rehnquist, and O'connor, JJ., joined. Brennan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Marshall and Blackmun, JJ., joined, post, p. 255. Powell, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

Author: Stevens

[ 472 U.S. Page 239]

 JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1928, Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company purchased an easement from the Pueblo of Santa Ana for a telephone line. Mountain States contends that the conveyance of this easement was valid under § 17 of the Pueblo Lands Act of 1924, 43 Stat. 641, because it was "first approved by the Secretary of the Interior."*fn1 The Pueblo contends that § 17 only authorizes such transfers "as may hereafter be provided by Congress," and that Congress never provided legislation authorizing the conveyance of Pueblo lands with the approval of the Secretary. Both constructions find some support in the language of § 17.

[ 472 U.S. Page 240]


Congress enacted the 1924 legislation "to provide for the final adjudication and settlement of a very complicated and difficult series of conflicting titles affecting lands claimed by the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico."*fn2 The Committee Reports review the unique and "interesting history of the Pueblo Indians"*fn3 and explain why special remedial legislation was necessary.

"These Indians were found by Coronado and the first Spanish explorers in 1541, many of them residing in villages and occupying the same lands that the Pueblo Indians now occupy."*fn4 From the earliest days, the Spanish conquerors recognized the Pueblos' rights in the lands that they still occupy,*fn5 and their ownership of these lands was confirmed in land grants from the King of Spain. Later, the independent Government of Mexico extended limited civil and political rights to the Pueblo Indians, and confirmed them in the ownership of their lands.

The United States acquired the territory that is now New Mexico in 1848 under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.*fn6 During the period between 1848 and 1910, when New Mexico became a State, inhabitants of that territory -- and members of the bar who advised them -- generally believed that the Pueblo Indians had the same unrestricted power to dispose of their lands as non-Indians whose title had originated in Spanish grants. This view was supported by decisions of the

[ 472 U.S. Page 241]

     Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico,*fn7 and by this Court's square holding in United States v. Joseph, 94 U.S. 614 (1877),*fn8 that the Pueblo Indians were not an "Indian tribe" protected by the Nonintercourse Act.*fn9 As a result, it

[ 472 U.S. Page 242]

     was thought that the Pueblo Indians could convey good title to their lands notwithstanding the Act's prohibition of any "purchase, grant, lease, or other conveyance of lands . . . from any . . . tribe of Indians." 4 Stat. 730, 25 U. S. C. § 177.

The prevailing opinion concerning the unique status of the Pueblo Indians was drawn into question as a result of the attempt by federal authorities to regulate the liquor trade with the Pueblos. They originally brought charges under an 1897 criminal statute prohibiting the sale of liquor to any "Indian."*fn10 Relying on Joseph, however, the Territorial Supreme Court held, in 1907, that the Pueblos were not "Indians" within the meaning of the statute.*fn11 In response, the New Mexico Enabling Act of 1910 expressly required that the new State's Constitution prohibit "the introduction of liquors into Indian country, which term shall also include all lands now owned or occupied by the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico."*fn12 In United States v. Sandoval, 231 U.S. 28 (1913), the Court noted that whatever doubts there previously were about the applicability of the Indian liquor statute to the Pueblos, "Congress, evidently wishing to make sure of a different result in the future, expressly declared" in the Enabling Act that "it should include them." 231 U.S., at 38.

The narrow question decided in the Sandoval case was that the dependent status of the Pueblo Indians was such that Congress could expressly prohibit the introduction of intoxicating liquors into their lands under its power "To regulate Commerce . . . with the Indian Tribes." U.S. Const., Art. I, § 8, cl. 3. In reaching that decision, however, the Court

[ 472 U.S. Page 243]

     rejected the factual premises that had supported its judgment in Joseph,*fn13 and suggested that "the observations there made respecting the Pueblos were evidently based upon statements in the opinion of the territorial court, then under review, which are at variance with other recognized sources of information, now available, and with the long-continued action of the legislative and executive departments." 231 U.S., at 49. The Court's disapproval of Joseph strongly implied that the restraints on alienation contained in the Nonintercourse Act -- as well as the liquor statute -- might apply to the Pueblos. As a result, the validity of all non-Indian claims to Pueblo lands was placed in serious doubt.

Relying on the rule established in Joseph, 3,000 non-Indians had acquired putative ownership of parcels of real estate located inside the boundaries of the Pueblo land grants.*fn14 The Court's decision in Sandoval cast a pall over all these titles by suggesting that the Pueblos had been wrongfully dispossessed of their lands, and that they might have the power to eject the non-Indian settlers.*fn15 After

[ 472 U.S. Page 244]

     conducting extensive hearings on the problem,*fn16 Congress drafted and enacted the Pueblo Lands Act of 1924. The stated purpose of the Act was to "settle the complicated questions of title and to secure for the Indians all of the lands to which they are equitably entitled." S. Rep. No. 492, 68th Cong., 1st Sess., 5 (1924).


Under the Act, a Public Lands Board, composed of the Secretary of the Interior, the Attorney General, and a third person to be appointed by the President of the United States, was established to determine conflicting claims to the Pueblo lands. § 2, 43 Stat. 636. The Board was instructed to issue a report setting forth the metes and bounds of the lands of each Pueblo that were found not to be extinguished under the rules established in the Act. Ibid. Continuous, open, and notorious adverse possession by non-Indian claimants, coupled with the payment of taxes from 1889 to the date of enactment in 1924, or from 1902 to 1924 if possession was under color of title, sufficed to extinguish a Pueblo's title. § 4.*fn17

[ 472 U.S. Page 245]

     The Board's reports were to be implemented by suits to quiet title in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico. §§ 1, 3.

The Act also directed the Board to award the Pueblos compensation for the value of any rights that were extinguished if they "could have been at any time recovered for said Indians by the United States by seasonable prosecution." § 6. Settlers who had occupied their lands in good faith, but whose claims were rejected, might receive compensation for the value of any improvements they had erected on their lands, or for the full value of their lands if they had purchased those lands and entered them before 1912 under a deed purporting to convey title. §§ 7, 15.

After the Board determined who owned each parcel of land, the Act foresaw that some consolidation of each Pueblo's land holdings might occur. The Board was directed to identify any parcels adjacent to a Pueblo settlement that should be purchased from non-Indian owners for transfer to the Pueblo. § 8. In addition, § 16 of the Act authorized the Secretary of the Interior, with consent of the Pueblo, to sell any lands owned by the Pueblo that were "situate among lands adjudicated or otherwise determined in favor of non-Indian

[ 472 U.S. Page 246]

     claimants and apart from the main body of the Indian land."*fn18

The foregoing provisions of the Pueblo Lands Act were all designed to settle the consequences of past transactions. In contrast, the section we must construe in this case -- § 17 -- was entirely concerned with transactions in Pueblo lands that might occur in the future. It provides:

"No right, title, or interest in or to the lands of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico to which their title has not been extinguished as hereinbefore determined shall hereafter be acquired or initiated by virtue of the laws of the State of New Mexico, or in any other manner except as may hereafter be provided by Congress, and no sale, grant, lease of any character, or other conveyance of lands, or any title or claim thereto, made by any pueblo as a community, or any Pueblo Indian living in a community of Pueblo Indians, in the State of New Mexico, shall be of any validity in law or in equity unless the same be first approved by the Secretary of the Interior." 43 Stat. 641-642 (emphasis added).

[ 472 U.S. Page 247]

     The question to be decided here is whether the second clause -- the language following the word "and" -- indicates that a Pueblo may convey good title to its lands with the approval of the Secretary of the Interior.


In 1905 Mountain States' predecessor allegedly acquired a right-of-way and constructed a telephone line across land owned by the Pueblo of Santa Ana. App. 8. Presumably the 1905 conveyance would have been invalid under the Nonintercourse Act. See n. 17, supra. In all events, in 1927 the United States, acting as guardian for the Pueblo of Santa Ana, brought an action in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico to quiet title to the lands of that Pueblo.

While the litigation was pending, the Pueblo entered into a right-of-way agreement with Mountain States granting it an easement "to construct, maintain and operate a telephone and telegraph pole line" on the land now in dispute. App. 39.*fn19 The agreement was forwarded to the Secretary of the Interior by the Bureau of Indian Affairs with the recommendation that it be approved under § 17. Id., at 181-183. This agreement was approved, and the approval was received, and endorsed on the right-of-way agreement. Id., at 43. On the Government's motion,*fn20 id., at 36, the District Court thereafter dismissed Mountain States from the quiet title

[ 472 U.S. Page 248]

     action on the ground that it had "secured good and sufficient title to the right of way and premises in controversy . . . in accordance with the provisions of Section 17 of the Pueblo Lands Act."*fn21

Mountain States removed the telephone line in 1980. On October 10 of that year, the Pueblo brought this action claiming trespass damages for the period prior to the removal of the line. The District Court granted partial summary judgment for the Pueblo on the issue of liability, holding that the grant of the right-of-way in 1928 was not authorized by § 17. Id., at 86-92.

The Court of Appeals allowed an interlocutory appeal under 28 U. S. C. § 1292(b) and affirmed. 734 F.2d. 1402 (CA10 1984). The court held that Pueblo lands were protected by the Nonintercourse Act prior to 1924 and that § 17 of the Pueblo Lands Act did not authorize any conveyance of such lands. It reasoned:

"The two clauses of § 17 of the Pueblo Lands Act are joined by the conjunctive 'and.' To us that means exactly what it says. No alienation of the Pueblo lands shall be made 'except as may hereafter be provided by Congress' and no such conveyance 'shall be of any validity in law or in equity unless the same be first approved by the Secretary of the Interior.' Two things are required. First, the lands must be conveyed in a manner provided by Congress. Second, the Secretary of the Interior must approve. As to the first, at the time of the agreement between the Pueblo and [Mountain States], Congress had provided nothing. Hence, the first condition was not met. The fact that Congress had provided

[ 472 U.S. Page 249]

     no method makes the approval of the Secretary meaningless. The operation of the second clause depends on compliance with the first clause." Id., at 1406.

The Court of Appeals considered and rejected Mountain States' reliance on the legislative history of the 1924 Act and its construction by the Secretary of the Interior.

Our concern that the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the Act might have a significant effect on other titles acquired pursuant to § 17 led us to grant certiorari. 469 U.S. 879 (1984). We now reverse.


The word "hereafter" in the first clause of § 17 supports the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the Act. Read literally, the statute seems to state unequivocally that no interest in Pueblo lands can be acquired "except as may hereafter be provided by Congress" -- or, stated somewhat differently, until Congress enacts yet another statute concerning the lands of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico.

The problem with this construction of the statute is that the requirement of the Secretary's approval in the second clause of § 17 would be a nullity until Congress acts. Even if a later Congress did enact another statute authorizing the alienation of Pueblo lands, that Congress would be entirely free to accept or reject that requirement. Neither the Pueblo nor the Court of Appeals has offered any plausible reason for attributing this futile design to the 68th Congress. In light of "the elementary canon of construction that a statute should be interpreted so as not to render one part inoperative," Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. 379, 392 (1979), the second clause of § 17 cannot be read as limiting the power of Congress to legislate in the "hereafter."*fn22

[ 472 U.S. Page 250]

     The Court of Appeals' literal interpretation of the first clause of § 17 would also nullify the effect of § 16. See n. 18, supra. The design of the Pueblo Lands Act indicates that Congress thought some consolidation of Pueblo land holdings might be desirable in connection with the claims settlement program to be promptly implemented by the Pueblo Lands Board. See supra, at 245-246. To this end, § 16 purports to authorize conveyances of Pueblo lands with the consent of the governing authorities of the Pueblo and the approval of the Secretary of the Interior. If the Court of Appeals' literal construction of § 17 were accepted, the consolidation of properties foreseen by § 16 could have been implemented only as Congress might thereafter provide. It is inconceivable that Congress would have inserted § 16 in the comprehensive settlement scheme provided in the Act if it did not expect it to be effective forthwith.

Finally, the practical effect of the Court of Appeals' interpretation is to apply the requirements of the Nonintercourse Act to voluntary transfers of Pueblo lands. In 1924, Congress logically could have adopted any of three approaches to voluntary transfers. It could have left the matter to be decided by the courts; applied the rule of the Nonintercourse Act; or adopted a new rule of law. A review of the structure of the statute convinces us that Congress followed the last course.

In arguing that § 17 simply extended the provisions of the Nonintercourse Act to the Pueblos, the Pueblo relies on language in the first clause of the section. However, it is the second -- not the first -- clause of § 17 that closely ...

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