Tribal Taxes

“Taxation Without Representation,” Final Abolishment in 1906

For many years prior to the passage of the Curtis Act, each Indian Tribe or Nation had enacted laws levying a tax (commonly called an occupation tax) upon every person not a member of the Tribe (non-citizen) who desired to transact business of any kind, within the Indian Territory. The first white settlers seem to have paid this tax willingly, at least without much protest. They could well afford to pay it, for in many instances, they practically had a monopoly of the business in which they engaged, and this was the only tax which they were required to pay. But as the white population increased, and especially after towns and cities sprang into existence, necessitating the payment of municipal taxes, much opposition arose to the payment of taxes to the Tribe. This opposition to the payment of Tribal taxes was not limited to non-members of the Tribe, for the Indians were also required to pay certain taxes. At the beginning of the present century and for several years prior thereto, each Cherokee was required to pay to the tribal treasurer, fifty cents per month for every non-citizen who was employed by him, each Cherokee was assessed fifty cents for every head of cattle which he purchased from a non-citizen. Merchants, both citizen and non-citizen, were required to pay one-fourth of one per cent on all goods purchased by them. A tax of twenty cents per ton was levied on all prairie hay cut for sale or shipment. Peddlers were taxed five per cent on all goods sold by them. Itinerant peddlers of drugs and medicines were taxed $50 per month.

In the Creek Nation merchants were taxed one per cent on the cost of goods offered for sale. Physicians, lawyers, dentists, contractors, sawmills, bakers and dairy-men were required to contribute to the tribal treasury at the rate of $25 per year, and tradesmen of every class were required to pay a greater or less amount in proportion to the extent of business carried on by them. It devolved upon the United States Indian agent to collect these taxes for the Tribes and he was directed by the Interior Department to escort any white man out of the Territory who refused to pay. As time passed, much bitter feeling and many lawsuits resulted from the attempts to enforce such collection. The old cry of “taxation without representation” was raised by the non-citizens, they claiming that they had no voice in the disposition of the funds arising from such taxation, and that they received no benefit there from.

By 1902 many newcomers had acquired title to town lots and had built their homes, and on May 27th of that year an Act of Congress was passed, which contained the following provision

“That it shall hereafter be unlawful to remove or deport any person from the Indian Territory who is in lawful possession of any lots or parcels of land in any town or city in the Indian Territory which has been designated as a town site under existing laws and treaties, and no part of this appropriation shall be used for the deportation or removal of any such person from the Indian Territory.”

This Act of Congress annulled the penalty for failure to pay the tribal tax, which merchants and others dreaded most seriously, viz: that of forcible removal from the Indian Territory, but the Federal collecting agents inaugurated the plan of locking up the stores and other places of business, where the owners refused to pay the tax. Many merchants then appealed to the courts to enjoin the collection of the tax and the closing of their stores. Some courts granted injunctions while others held that merchants must pay or suffer the penalty. In one case Judge Joseph A. Gill of the United States District Court for the Northern District granted a writ of injunction against the enforcement of this tribal law, while, at a later date, when the same case came before Judge C. W. Raymond of the Muskogee District, the injunction was dissolved, the court holding that the tax was legal so long as the tribal government existed, and its collection could be enforced by closing the places of business of those who refused to pay.

Inasmuch as all of the proceeds of these tribal taxes were turned over to the treasury of the tribe, and no part thereof expended for any public purpose whatever, the opposition to it constantly increased, almost culminating, at times, in open warfare, until finally, it was abolished by Act of Congress, approved April 26, 1906, in the following words

“All taxes accruing under tribal laws or regulations of the Secretary of the Interior shall be abolished from and after December 31st, 1905, but this provision shall not prevent the collection after that date not after dissolution of the tribal government, of all such taxes due up to and including December 31, 1905.”

Thus ended one of the most disagreeable contests of the last days of tribal governments.

Source: Benedict, John D. Muskogee and northeastern Oklahoma, including the counties of Muskogee, McIntosh, Wagoner, Cherokee, Sequoyah, Adair, Delaware, Mayes, Rogers, Washington, Nowata, Craig, and Ottawa. 3 v. illus., ports., facsims. 28 cm. Chicago, S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1922.

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