Indian Tribes Sue BNSF for Tax Money

Two American Indian tribes, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal Nation, are suing the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad for back taxes they say is owed for railroad operations on their lands.

Partly at stake in this lawsuit is the tribes’ authority to tax the railroad for use of reservation lands. In a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals, the tribes asked the courts to intervene in a dispute that began in 1987 when the tribes adopted a law imposing a tax on companies using reservation lands. BNSF originally brought the suit challenging the tribes’ authority to take this action, which, in March 1991,was decided in favor of the Indians. “We thought that was the end of it,” said Tribal Chairman Arlyn Headdress in a statement. “The railroad began paying the taxes they owed. Then last year they suddenly stopped, so we had no alternative but to once again take legal action.” The tribes filed suit against BNSF in tribal court in February, with the railroad filing a separate suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Montana three weeks later challenging the tribes’ authority to collect the tax. The district court ruled in favor of the railroad in June, prompting the recent appeal by the tribes to a higher court. Both tribes say more than 600,000 freight cars a year cross tribal lands.

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