In 1956, a group of Sioux Indians visited the law offices of Marvin J. Sonosky here, trying to persuade him to take their case. They said their land, their beloved Black Hills, had been stolen from them by the U.S. government.
The Indians had been in the courts for more than 40 years at that point, and the alleged theft had occurred in the 1870s. In the courts, the case had been filed and refiled, thrown out in more than one way and generally stomped on.
Sonosky easily could have escorted them out of his office. He didn't.
"When they brought that case to me, I thought it was a winner," Sonosky said last week -- when he was able to say that with impunity. The Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of the Sioux Indians in the same case, which he and a handful of other lawyers had carried through thick and thin for nearly 25 years.
The Indians were awarded more than $105 million. The legal fees for Sonosky and the other attorneys can be up to 10 percent of that, or $10 million. That is clearly a lot of money, but Sonosky is quick to point out that the lawyers in the case have been doing a lot of unpaid work for 25 years.
When the Sioux first came to Sonosky, there was one minor problem. They already had a lawyer, so he was not able to take the case at that point. What he did, though, was a last-minute rescue.
As Sonosky remembers it now, he drew up a motion for a rehearing on the Indians' behalf and took them over to the courthouse to file it just short of the deadline. It was slipped under the courthouse door on a weekend, and - to the surprise of many -- the case was reopened.
At that point, Sonosky could move into it full steam ahead -- if such a term can be applied to a case where at one point it took six years for the government to file a response to a motion.
As the years progressed, the Indians' case took its toll on Sonosky's time and his law practice. He basically ran two practices, one for the Indian cases he handled and the other in his other areas of speciality, oil and gas and public land cases.
The tortured trail of the case once again ran up and down the court system. On two separate occasions, the attorneys had to get special acts of Congress passed to allow it to continue.
Last year the U.S. Court of Claims finally ruled that the Indians deserved $17 million for the land and 5 percent annual interest on that amount, for a total of at least $105 million.
"To our amazement," the Supreme Court then decided to hear the case, Sonosky said last week. "There isn't any great (legal) question in the case," he added, that would deem it worthy of the high court's attention.
What Sonosky and the other attorneys got from the Supreme Court was just about all they could have hoped for -- for 8-to-1 ruling that upheld the largest Indian land compensation award in U.S. history and set a standard for future claims that could greatly assist other tribes trying to recover from broken treaties.
Sonosky's work is not done yet, however. Now he has to convince the courts of the amount that he should be paid for all his years of work.
"We have to go and beg for our fee," Sonosky said. "I don't know of any case where attorneys have done so much for so little."
Persons familiar with the rather unusual area of long-running Indian claims cases say the attorneys will probably be able to justify easily their 10 percent award in this matter. And they point out that individual attorneys in the past have gotten as much as $3.5 million for their work on such matters.
Meanwhile, Sonosky has other Indian cases pending. That is not bad for a 71-year-old attorney who said last week he got all the way through the University of Minnesota law school without even knowing there were Indians in the state.
His knowledge of Indian matters and his expertise was developed, as you might expect, from working on such cases on behalf of the government as a Justice Department attorney before entering private practice here in the early 1950s.
The Indian claims cases with their 100-year court cycles do tend to remind us that, despite what many attorneys in town might say, there is a court system that works more slowly in deciding cases than the U.S. Court of Appeals.