Deeper look into the Fort Laramie Treaties, how they factor into DAPL discussion

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Fort Laramie, Wyo., is a small town of about 230 people. But historically, the town has played an important role in the relations between Native Americans and the federal government.

So important, in fact, it has made its way into the Dakota Access Pipeline discussion.

The 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty set the northern border of Indian Country at the Heart River just south of Mandan. Dakota Access Pipeline protesters have used that as justification for creating a roadblock and a camp that led to a confrontation last week.

"They have a point. Absolutely they do. I mean, it was treaty land. There's no question about that," said Tom Disselhorst, former Indian law professor.

But in 1868 that reservation land was reconfigured with another Fort Laramie Treaty. In 1875, some land was given back by executive order, finalizing Standing Rock's northern border, leaving most of Morton County, and the path of the pipeline, in dispute.

"Treaties are in successive order. You can't say that one applies at the same time as another," said Rick Olson, CPA who's worked on federal legislation.

"That 1851 Treaty was never cancelled. Nobody ever said it was no good anymore and so in that respect, since it's been ratified, it was established as the lands the United States took under the Indian Claims Commission," said Disselhort.

Another issue is whether the government fairly compensated the tribes for the land.

"The 1868 treaty has compensation in it for what happened, so the idea that there's stolen land really doesn't fly," said Olson.

"Did they know what was in it? If they had, I'm not sure they would have signed it because one of the clauses says the United States can build roads and establish forts and all that kind of thing," said Disselhorst.

The Indian Claims Commission agreed that the government broke the treaties and awarded the tribes compensation. In 1980, the Supreme Court awarded several Sioux tribes more than $100 million. No tribes have accepted that money.

In that same case, the Supreme Court said the tribes could be paid for the land.

No Sioux nation has accepted the money, which has swelled to more than a billion dollars in a Department of Treasury account, according to a 2015 article in The Atlantic. So, while the protesters may not have a legal claim to the land, they do have a historic one.