Arthur Lazarus Jr., Champion of Native American Rights, Dies at 92


Arthur Lazarus, a lawyer and champion of legal rights for Native Americans, who won a landmark award for the Sioux Nation in its ongoing struggle involving the Black Hills of South Dakota, died on July 27 in Washington. He was 92.

The cause was complications of kidney and heart disease, said his son Edward.

Over six decades, Mr. Lazarus helped Native American tribes across the country develop their democratic institutions, reclaim lands and exercise their sovereign powers.

His work was made possible by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, known as the “Indian New Deal.” The act reversed decades of assimilationist policies of the United States government and allowed tribes to re-establish their tribal governments and cultures. Mr. Lazarus guided them in these efforts.

“Like any fledgling government, they needed help,” Edward Lazarus, who is also a lawyer and has written about Indian issues, said in an interview. “That meant developing a taxation system on the reservations, setting up a civil justice system, capturing water and mineral rights, and sometimes suing or negotiating with the United States government.”

This work, Edward Lazarus said, was the central legacy of his father’s legal career. It included helping to draft the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which awarded to Native tribes almost $1 billion and 40 million acres on which they had lived for generations. The claim had been unresolved for more than 100 years.

While devoting himself to this work, Arthur Lazarus also devoted decades to a single legal case involving the Sioux Nation. Even though he won a crucial legal victory for the Sioux tribes, the issue remains unresolved to this day.

A treaty in 1868 had set aside millions of acres of land, most of it in South Dakota, including the Black Hills, for the Sioux. After gold was discovered on that land, Congress reneged on the treaty and seized the Black Hills in 1877.

The tribes sued the United States in 1923, seeking compensation for the land seized. After several setbacks, Sioux leaders in the 1950s sought out Mr. Lazarus and others to carry on the case.

In 1979, after more than 20 years of litigation, the United States Court of Claims awarded the Sioux $17.5 million and, for the first time in such a case, the government would have to pay 5 percent interest, for a total of $106 million.

The government objected to paying interest, and appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In 1980, the high court upheld the original Court of Claims decision and sided 8 to 1 with Mr. Lazarus.

“It was precedent-setting,” said Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Pawnee Tribe.

“For the first time in the history of these Indian claims,” he said, “and there were hundreds of them, the Court of Claims determined that the taking of Sioux land was so egregious, the United States should have to pay interest on the value of the land at the time of its taking.”

At the time, it was the largest financial award offered to an Indian tribe for illegally seized land.

That might have been the end of it.

But in a surprising turn of events, after 57 years of litigation — believed to be the longest court case in American history — the Sioux rejected the monetary award. Instead, they wanted the land.

In the intervening years between 1923, when the case began, and 1980, when it ended, much had changed — mainly the rise of the American Indian movement and its quest for greater political power, autonomy and identity. The Sioux of 1980 feared that if they accepted the money, they would lose their sacred ancestral land forever and their culture with it.

The issue has been at a standstill ever since. The money has never been touched. It sits in trust in an interest-bearing account that by now has grown to more than $1 billion.

“This was a sad ending from his perspective,” Edward Lazarus, who wrote about the case in the book “Black Hills/White Justice” (1991), said of his father. “But he also thought that some day, that money would ultimately be put to great use by the tribes. He just didn’t know when.”

Arthur Lazarus Jr. was born on Aug. 30, 1926, in Brooklyn, to Arthur and Frieda (Langer) Lazarus. His father was a business consultant and one of the country’s first efficiency experts. His mother was an antiwar activist and advocate for conscientious objectors during World War II.

Arthur grew up in Brooklyn, where he attended Poly Prep Country Day School. He went on to Columbia University, where he edited the student newspaper, The Columbia Spectator, and roomed with Allen Ginsberg, the future beat poet.

He graduated in 1946 at age 19, having started college at 16 during World War II, when Columbia ran an accelerated program for undergraduates. He went to Yale Law School and graduated in 1949.

He then joined what is now the Washington office of the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, where he developed his interest in Indian law.

He married Gertrude Chiger in 1956. She died in 2013. In addition to their son Edward, Mr. Lazarus is survived by another son, Andrew; a daughter, Diana; a sister, Margy Meyerson; and seven grandchildren.

Although the Black Hills issue has not been resolved, the case remains one of historic significance.

“Not until the Sioux Nation case did any of us appreciate that you could actually win one of these cases, and with interest,” said Lloyd B. Miller, a lawyer and partner in Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Miller and Monkman, who worked on many cases with Mr. Lazarus.

“He showed,” Mr. Miller said, “that justice, at least partial justice, could be achieved in the courts despite centuries of oppression.”

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