Here’s how white colonizers operate: invade and steal indigenous land, force the indigenous people onto reservations controlled by the colonizers, lease that reservation land out to white invaders, then offer those white renters the tax breaks the indigenous people are supposed to get for the trouble we’ve caused them. Wow—talk about the lessors of two evils! (or maybe three, or four… but who besides indigenous folks are counting?)
The Pickerel Lake Outlet Association and forty non-Native members (I haven’t met these lessees, but, as in most roomsful of South Dakotans trying to get out of paying taxes, it’s a fair bet they’re all white privilegists) went to court to prevent Day County from taxing the permanent improvements they built on land they leased from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate around Pickerel Lake.
In 2018, Circuit Court Judge Jon Flemmer said these white tax dodgers had to pay up, rejecting their claims of unfair double taxation. In its last ruling before Christmas, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld Judge Flemmer’s decision to make the Pickerel Lake plaintiffs pay their fair share to the county for the roads, sewer, law enforcement, and other public services that make lake living lovely.
The non-tribal plaintiffs claimed the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 exempts Indian trust land from state and local taxation. Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Janice Kern notes that Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act “to rehabilitate the Indian’s economic life and to give him a chance to develop the initiative destroyed by a century of oppression and paternalism.” That law exists to restore and protect American Indians’ economic interests, not facilitate the white man’s eternal effort to evade his own government’s taxes. But Justice Kern didn’t have to plumb that irony, as she says the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the land they lease had been acquired under the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act in the first place.
The Day County tax dodgers also tried invoking Article 22 of the South Dakota Constitution, our entering compact with the United States declaring we won’t try to take or govern any Indian land controlled by Congress. But Justice Kern slaps down that avenue of attack, saying Article 22 deals with “land held by Indians, not permanent structures owned by non-Indians.” The feds haven’t claimed any exclusive authority over taxing such non-tribal structures on tribal land, so Day County’s taxes do not violate Article 22 any more than past taxes, upheld by the courts, on the white man’s railroads and cattle running across tribal land.
The Pickerel Lake plaintiffs might have had a shot at a favorable ruling if the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate had intervened. However, Justice Kern notes that the tribe did not intervene in this case. The tribe thus appears not to perceive any threat to its sovereignty from Day County’s taking money out of the pale hides of the Pickerel Lake cabineers.
Some of these cranky white folks paid Day County their taxes in protest; others have withheld payments since 2013. This Supreme Court ruling settles that protest and tells all the white folks on the lake to stop dressing up their tax dodging in Indian costumes and pay their fair share.