In Quick Bear v. Leupp, 210 U.S. 50 (1908), the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the pleas of Sioux Indians of South Dakota who were attempting to stop payments from treaty trust funds for a religious school on the Rosebud Reservation. The plaintiffs, among them Reuben Quick Bear, sued the commissioner of Indian affairs, Francis E. Leupp, seeking an injunction against payments to the Catholic Indian Bureau, which was running the mission school. The Sioux contended that such expenditures were forbidden by several Indian appropriations acts beginning in 1895. The Court ruled that they were not and that to forbid such expenditures would be to violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Chief Justice Melville Fuller’s decision against Quick Bear distinguished between two types of expenditures: those that came from regular government appropriations and thus were subject to limitations under the Indian appropriations acts and those that were administered by the government from a trust fund created by a treaty to compensate tribes for lands ceded to the United States. The government held the latter in trust on behalf of the Native Americans. Money from the trust fund was applied to the mission school. Fuller denied that “the spirit of the Constitution” as embodied in the Indian appropriations acts should disallow Native Americans from using “their own money to educate their children in the schools of their own choice” simply because the government otherwise had to act in an “undenominational” capacity. He indicated that forbidding the Native Americans from expending their funds as they wanted would in fact deny them their free exercise rights.

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