Arthur Lazarus Jr., a Washington lawyer who represented Native American tribes for more than four decades, notably securing a landmark $106 million award for the Sioux Nation as part of its long fight for the Black Hills of South Dakota, died July 27 at a hospital in Washington. He was 92.
He had kidney and heart ailments, said his son Edward Lazarus, a lawyer and author who chronicled the Sioux case in a critically acclaimed book, “Black Hills White Justice” (1991).
The practice of Indian law scarcely existed when Mr. Lazarus began his career in 1950. But with tutelage from Felix S. Cohen, an architect of the field, Mr. Lazarus became one of its preeminent practitioners, known for working with tribes including the Blackfeet in Montana, the Miccosukee in Florida, the Nez Percé in Idaho, the Oglala Sioux in South Dakota, the San Carlos Apache in Arizona and the Seneca in New York.
“He was one of those people who was a friend to the tribes when they really needed friends,” said Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. A member of the Pawnee tribe, he recalled that Mr. Lazarus hired him in 1983 at the Washington office of Fried Frank, at a time when “there weren’t that many Indian lawyers in existence and were none at the big firms in Washington.”
“He was a force,” Gover added, “and sent a lot of us out to have impactful careers.”
With a laconic, restrained demeanor in and out of the courtroom, Mr. Lazarus traveled to tribal council meetings across the country, offering legal advice on budgets, land claims and dealings with the federal government. In Washington, he lobbied on behalf of Native American legislation and helped draft the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which awarded $962 million and 44 million acres — roughly 10 percent of the state — to Alaska Natives.
“There was nobody better at Indian law than Arthur,” said Reid Peyton Chambers, a founding partner at the Washington-based firm of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, where Mr. Lazarus was designated “of counsel” in the mid-1990s.
Mr. Lazarus spent much of his career working on the historic Sioux Nation case, considered one of the longest legal battles in American history — a kind of tribal version of the “Jarndyce and Jarndyce” legal dispute in Charles Dickens’s novel “Bleak House,” which spanned generations and baffled plaintiff and defendant alike.
Passed from judge to judge and eventually lawyer to lawyer for nearly 60 years, the Sioux Nation case resulted in a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the largest Indian land compensation award in U.S. history, set a standard for later claims and divided the approximately 100,000 Sioux. Younger leaders insisted that the land was never up for sale, calling the process a sham, and the Sioux Nation went on to reject the money, which continues to accrue interest in Treasury Department accounts.
Known in the Lakota language as Paha Sapa, the Black Hills encompass roughly 7 million acres of western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming, a mountainous region that was long covered with dark pine trees and pocketed with gold. An 1868 treaty set it aside “for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupancy of the Sioux,” who consider it sacred.
But over the next nine years, George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the hills, a gold rush began, and Congress reneged on the treaty, reclaiming a swath of land that is now known largely as a tourist attraction home to Mount Rushmore.
“A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history,” the U.S. Court of Claims later concluded. By 1980, the Homestake gold mine in the Black Hills had “yielded more than $1 billion to non-Indians,” according to a Washington Post report.
In 1923, after Congress passed a law enabling tribes to file compensation claims, Washington lawyer Ralph Case began a legal campaign on behalf of the Sioux. But the case was bogged down by delays and, after 20 years, thrown out for technical reasons. The Indian Claims Commission, established in 1946, created a new avenue for obtaining compensation.
Sioux leaders enlisted Mr. Lazarus and two other Indian-law specialists, Marvin J. Sonosky and William Howard Payne, to replace Case in 1956. More delays followed and, according to “Black Hills White Justice,” Mr. Lazarus was twice forced to turn to Congress, which passed and amended legislation removing some of the legal roadblocks.
Finally, in 1979, the Court of Claims awarded the Sioux $17.5 million, plus 5 percent interest, for the illegal seizure of the Black Hills. When the government appealed, objecting to the interest payment, Mr. Lazarus argued the case before the Supreme Court, which upheld the payment in an 8-1 ruling. (Justice William H. Rehnquist was the sole dissenter.)
In a phone interview, Gover described the case as “unprecedented” for its inclusion of interest. The decision also marked a professional and financial triumph for Mr. Lazarus, who had worked for the Sioux Nation effectively without pay — on a contingent-fee basis — for 24 years, taking a lead role in its last years.
He and his two colleagues were awarded a $10.6 million legal fee by the Court of Claims, which the New York Times reported was “one of the largest fees, if not the largest, ever awarded by a court in any kind of case.”
Although the 10 percent fee was based on the total amount awarded to the Sioux, a common practice in Indian claims cases, it further inflamed activists who sought the return of the Black Hills and challenged the lawyers’ authority to represent them. (The issue of land ownership was outside of the scope of the Indian Claims Commission, through which they brought their case, Mr. Lazarus said.)
Russell Means, a leader of the 1973 demonstration at Wounded Knee and member of the Oglala Sioux, likened the lawyers to “parasites” in an interview with the Times; his brother Bill Means declared “they carried out the wishes of the U.S. Government to exploit the Indian people.”
That view was not shared by all Sioux, particularly among older generations. “I remember when I was a little boy this was all the old-timers talked about, the Black Hills case,” Norman Hollow, a 61-year-old tribal leader in Poplar, Mont., told the Times in 1981. “But it never came to be a reality until these attorneys came on board and revived the case.”
The youngest of three children, Arthur Lazarus Jr. was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 30, 1926. His father was an industrial engineer and business consultant, and his mother was a pacifist and adviser to conscientious objectors.
At Columbia University, Mr. Lazarus was a roommate of poet Allen Ginsberg and editor in chief of the student newspaper. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1946 and graduated from Yale Law School in 1949.
The next year, he joined what is now the Washington office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, where he worked closely with Cohen and developed an interest in Indian law. After Cohen’s death, in 1953, Mr. Lazarus and colleague Richard Schifter — later assistant secretary of state for human rights — inherited the firm’s Indian law office.
Mr. Lazarus appeared before the Supreme Court for the first time in 1959, in an effort to block Robert Moses and the New York Power Authority from seizing one-fifth of the Tuscarora Indian Nation’s land for a power project. He lost in a 6-to-3 decision, with Justice Hugo L. Black lamenting in his dissent that the government had broken faith with the tribe.
“Great nations, like great men, should keep their word,” he said.
Mr. Lazarus, who also taught at Yale Law School, retired from Fried Frank in 1991 and then joined Sonosky, recruited by his partner in the Sioux Nation case. He retired from day-to-day work in 2011.
His wife of 57 years, the former Gertrude “Gigi” Chiger, died in 2013. In addition to their son Edward Lazarus, of Santa Barbara, Calif., survivors include two other children, Andrew Lazarus of Berkeley, Calif., and Diana Lazarus of Bethesda, Md.; a sister; and seven grandchildren.
In the years after Mr. Lazarus’s winning Supreme Court appearance, members of the Sioux Nation continued to insist they preferred their sacred land far more than compensation. Accepting money, they said, effectively meant signing away their claim to the Black Hills.
Tribal leaders still seek the restoration of their land through the White House and Congress, where Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) unsuccessfully introduced legislation in the mid-1980s to restore land to the Sioux.
Meanwhile, the money from the Indian Claims Commission continues to grow. By 2011, the fund was worth more than $1 billion.