BARNES, C.J., FOR THE COURT:
¶ 1. Paul Benton and certain members of Curtis Johnson's family jointly own a tract of land (the Property) formerly owned by Walter Johnson, Curtis's great-grandfather. Known as the "Johnson Tract," it consists of approximately 286 acres in rural Holmes County, Mississippi. This case stems from a petition for the partition and division of the property filed by Paul and Bobby Benton (the Bentons), who at the time this case commenced owned approximately sixty percent of the Property. The parties entered into an agreed order finalizing the partition and providing, among other matters, that the parties should not enter certain areas of each other's property. The record, however, shows that Curtis had been trespassing on the Bentons' land for several years.
¶ 2. After entry of the agreed order, Curtis continued to trespass repeatedly on Paul's property. Paul accordingly filed a petition for contempt with the chancery court. In response, Curtis filed a motion to dismiss Paul's petition, claiming for the first time he is subject to tribal sovereign immunity because he is "Chief of the Creek Indians East of the Mississippi." After a hearing, the chancellor denied Curtis's motion to dismiss and granted Paul's petition for contempt. Aggrieved, Curtis appealed.
STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
¶ 3. This lengthy lawsuit commenced on December 31, 2013, when the Bentons filed a petition for partition of the Property.
¶ 4. Defendants responded that they did "not object to a partition in kind but want[ed] to ensure that their interests in natural resources and mineral rights [we]re adequately protected in the proposed partition." They requested special commissioners be appointed
¶ 5. The record indicates problems with Curtis began around April 2014, as alleged
¶ 6. In May 2015, the Bentons filed a motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO) because Defendants had refused to keep the gates closed on the access roads to the Bentons' hunting camp, which includes the northern border of the land being partitioned. Due to the expensive equipment at the hunting camp, the Bentons were concerned about theft. The chancery court granted the motion and ordered Defendants to keep the gates shut. In response to the order, Curtis and his father Joe Lewis, now appearing pro se, filed a motion for contempt against the Bentons and to "dismiss the order," claiming the Bentons did not own the road where the gates were located and did not have permission to use it.
¶ 7. The Bentons denied any violation of the court's TRO and cited an incident when Paul and several hired men were working on the property and access road near his hunting camp. Paul claimed that on June 7, 2015, Curtis ripped the gate that secures the access road off its posts, thereby leaving his property unsecure. Days later, the Bentons filed an emergency motion for a TRO against Defendants, citing this destruction and several other similar incidents.
¶ 8. On February 3, 2016, the four appointed special commissioners filed their report and recommendation on the Property, finding approximately sixty acres to be open land and valuing the remainder timber land at $48,000. A survey map divided the Property into four tracts, all fronting Highway 17. One tract comprised approximately 282 acres with a value of $1,500 per acre, with the remaining three tracts comprising
¶ 9. Basing their division off the survey map, the commissioners divided the property into six tracts and suggested granting the Bentons approximately sixty percent of the total property value, with the remaining forty-percent value being granted to Defendants. Time and expenses for the commissioners' duties totaled approximately $56,000. Also on February 3, 2016, the parties, including Curtis, signed an agreed order. The Bentons received Tract 5 consisting of approximately 172 acres. Defendants were granted Tracts 1 through 4 and Tract 6, totaling approximately 113 acres. The agreed order provided "no Defendants shall be allowed on any portion of Plaintiffs' [the Bentons'] property identified as Tract 5. Likewise, Plaintiffs [the Bentons] shall not be allowed on Tracts 1-4 or Tract 6. Defendants agree that no Defendant shall have any access to the licensed roadway at any time." However, Curtis "repeatedly violated" the order by "blatantly trespassing" on the Bentons' property, including private property that was not a part of the partition suit.
¶ 10. On April 25, 2019, the Bentons filed a petition to cite Curtis for civil and criminal contempt after repeatedly requesting Curtis to cease trespassing. The petition described an incident on October 10, 2018, when the Bentons and some friends were again working on the deer camp. Curtis "barreled down the access road in his truck and into the field where they were working." He approached Paul in a "violent and aggressive manner" and was shouting. Paul asked someone to call the sheriff's department. Curtis shouted in response that neither the sheriff nor the court could "do anything" to him because he was "an Indian." The Bentons attached to their petition photographs from trail cameras showing Curtis trespassing that day.
¶ 11. On May 3, 2019, in response, Curtis filed a motion to dismiss Paul's petition for contempt, claiming he is a Creek Indian and subject to tribal sovereign immunity, which protects him and his family from particular suits, especially land disputes. Curtis attached to his motion a statement to "Honorable Judges of Justice Court or any State Court" that his ancestors were "Indians" and that his great-grandfather Walter Johnson "had to reacquire his ancestral lands." Further, he claimed his family had been in possession of these lands since 1840 "and have lived as Indians since then." He cited to the "Treaty With the Creeks 1790" and maintained that "[a]nything adverse to those treaties or any federal laws for Indians is a violation of our rights as Indian[s]." He argued that any case brought against the Creek Indians
¶ 12. On June 5, 2019, a hearing was held on Curtis's motion to dismiss and Paul's petition for contempt. Curtis, appearing pro se, explained that he had "filed papers at the courthouse" giving notice "that [the Johnsons] are Creek Indians that live East of the Mississippi [River] in Mississippi." Curtis testified that he traced his ancestry, which revealed that his family was not African-American but Creek Indian. Later, Curtis testified that he has lived his entire life "as an Indian." He claimed his great-grandfather Walter L. Johnson, who died in 1970, was a Creek Indian. The chancellor asked for proof, but Curtis responded that he did not bring it to court that day.
¶ 13. The Bentons' counsel accurately stated that the issue before the court was not whether Curtis was "an Indian or not"; the issue was the offenses he committed on Paul's private property. Further, the laws and cases Curtis cited to the court applied only to acts occurring on federally recognized reservations. In 1832, the Creek were compelled to cede "their original homelands east of the Mississippi for a reservation promised in what is now Oklahoma." McGirt v. Oklahoma, ___ U.S. ___, 140 S.Ct. 2452, 2464, 207 L.Ed.2d 985 (2020). Therefore, any "Creek Tribe East of the Mississippi" does not have such a reservation. Counsel argued that there is no regulation that allows Curtis to trespass on someone else's property because he is allegedly a Native American. Further, Curtis waived any claim to tribal sovereign immunity because he had never asserted he was a Native American, only an African American. The chancellor denied Curtis's motion to dismiss from the bench, ruling that even if Curtis were immune as chief of his tribe, he did not prove his status as a Native American in a recognized tribe that would provide him with sovereign immunity.
¶ 14. Next, testimony was taken from Paul and Curtis regarding Paul's citation for contempt based upon the October 10, 2018 incident at Paul's hunting camp. Paul testified that Curtis pulled up to Paul and some workers, screaming about whether Paul "had seen a sign." Paul did not know what sign Curtis was talking about at the time.
¶ 15. Curtis testified that the October 10 encounter was to inform Paul that he and his family were Creek Indians and that Paul was trespassing on his land. Curtis said that when Paul asked him to leave, he did. Further, he denied being belligerent, contending "we are peaceful people." Curtis claimed that he was not trespassing under the partition order because he did not leave the gravel access road. He further refused to admit the road was in the midst of Paul's land.
¶ 16. After the hearing, the chancery court entered a judgment of contempt against Curtis for willfully entering the Bentons' Tract 5 land, as well as the licensed
STANDARD OF REVIEW
¶ 17. This Court employs a de novo standard of review for a trial court's grant or denial of a motion to dismiss. Benson v. Neshoba Cnty. Sch. Dist., 102 So.3d 1190, 1192-93 (¶ 8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012). Questions of law such as jurisdictional issues are also reviewed de novo. Jones v. Billy, 798 So.2d 1238, 1239 (¶ 2) (Miss. 2001). Regarding a citation for contempt, the standard of review "is determined upon the facts of each case and is a matter for the trier of fact." Showers v. Norwood, 914 So.2d 758, 761 (¶ 11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (citing Milam v. Milam, 509 So.2d 864, 866 (Miss. 1987)). Further, "[i]t is well-settled law that contempt matters are committed to the substantial discretion of the chancellor. This Court will not reverse a contempt citation where the chancellor's findings are supported by substantial credible evidence." Id.
¶ 18. Curtis states that his appeal concerns whether he, claiming status as a Native American, can be cited for contempt of court for trespassing on his ancestral lands. Relatedly, he raises four issues: (1) the trial court should have applied Article VI of the United States Constitution to his case; (2) the trial court erred in denying his status as a Native American for "lack of proof"; (3) Native Americans or their descendants cannot be cited for contempt in Mississippi courts for trespass on their ancestral lands; and (4) a descendant of a Native American settler in Holmes County is entitled to the same laws that apply to all Native Americans.
¶ 19. The chancery court found this case had nothing to do with Indian or tribal law but with Curtis's blatant disregard of the laws and court orders of Mississippi. We agree and find none of Curtis's issues have merit. We shall first discuss the chancery court's denial of Curtis's motion to dismiss and then the chancery court's finding of contempt against Curtis.
I. Curtis's Motion to Dismiss
¶ 20. Curtis argues the chancery court should have granted his motion to dismiss Paul's petition for contempt because he "asserted tribal immunity." Curtis claims that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction over him as the self-proclaimed "Chief of the Creek Indian Tribe East of the Mississippi." He further contends the chancery court erred in failing to recognize his Indian status and improperly applied Mississippi law instead of federal Indian tribal law. Interestingly, it was not until Paul filed his petition for contempt in April 2019 that Curtis asserted that he is protected by tribal sovereign immunity.
¶ 23. While Curtis now claims he is chief of the Creek Indian Tribe East of the Mississippi, he offers no evidence to prove his membership or that this tribe is even legally recognized. In his brief, Curtis discusses the possible Native American ethnicity of his great-grandfather Walter and Walter's grandparents, but Curtis admits not knowing if these ancestors were Indian, African-American, or European. He then charges the chancery court with racial discrimination against him because it did not accept his Indian status without proof. However, even the Creeks themselves require more than just an individual's "word," i.e., proof of a direct ancestor listed on the Dawes Rolls.
¶ 24. Curtis cites numerous federal cases and statutes related to Native American law to support his tribal sovereign-immunity claim. However, because he fails to prove his membership in a federally recognized tribe, this authority is inapplicable. Curtis cites 18 U.S.C. § 1162
¶ 25. Curtis also cites 18 U.S.C. § 1151, which provides the definition of "Indian country,"
¶ 26. Curtis argues that private citizens cannot purchase lands from Native Americans, citing Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543, 5 L.Ed. 681 (1823). However, M'Intosh dealt with determining the power of the federal government to extinguish Indian title to land. Id. at 604-05. In M'Intosh, two Indian tribes sold Thomas Johnson title to some land in Illinois before American independence. Id. at 559-60. After independence, the tribes sold the same land to the United States government, which then sold it to William M'Intosh. Id. at 560. The United States Supreme Court upheld M'Intosh's ownership and "refused to recognize land titles originating in grants by Indians to private parties...." Oneida Indian Nation of New York State v. Oneida County, 414 U.S. 661, 669-70, 94 S.Ct. 772, 39 L.Ed.2d 73 (1974) (citing M'Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) at 604-05). "[T]hose grants were contrary to the accepted principle that Indian title could be extinguished only by or with the consent of the general government." Id. at 669, 94 S.Ct. 772. However, the federal government could grant non-Indians land held by Indian tribes, but the grantees took title subject to the Indian "right of occupancy" because the Indians had used and occupied the land since "time immemorial." Id. at 664, 667-68, 94 S.Ct. 772 (citing M'Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) at 550, 574). M'Intosh does not further Curtis's argument, nor is the case applicable here, as we have neither a federally recognized tribe nor Indian land at issue.
¶ 27. In sum, the chancery court did not err in denying Curtis's motion to dismiss or declining to apply Indian tribal law because Curtis failed to offer any evidence he or his ancestors are Indian or that the Property is Indian country or ancestral lands.
II. Paul's Petition for Contempt
¶ 28. Curtis's citation for contempt of the February 3, 2016 agreed order is the crux of this case. However, Curtis makes no specific arguments related to it beyond claiming he was not trespassing on Paul's private land because of his rights as a Native American. Regardless, we shall address the chancery court's proper citation of contempt against Curtis for his repeated trespass onto Paul's private property.
¶ 29. A chancellor is allowed "wide discretion in `exerting his [or her] coercive powers to enforce his [or her] decrees.'" Hanshaw v. Hanshaw, 55 So.3d 143, 147 (¶ 13) (Miss. 2011) (citing Matthews v. Matthews, 227 Miss. 358, 360, 86 So.2d 462, 462 (1956)). "Civil contempt orders enforce a private party's rights or compel compliance with a court's order." Id. (citing Purvis v. Purvis, 657 So.2d 794, 796 (Miss. 1994)). "[A] citation for criminal contempt [is] to vindicate the dignity and authority of the court" when the offending party "has wilfully, deliberately and contumaciously ignored the court, or the court's directive." In re Smith, 926 So.2d 878, 887-88 (¶ 13) (Miss. 2006). A reviewing court "will not reverse the chancellor's finding of contempt unless the decision was manifestly wrong." Lewis v. Pagel, 172 So.3d 162, 178 (¶ 39) (Miss. 2015) (citing Gutierrez v. Gutierrez, 153 So.3d 703, 713 (¶ 31) (Miss. 2014)).
¶ 30. Curtis participated, through counsel, in the negotiations regarding the partition of the Property. On February 3, 2016, he, along with the other parties, signed the agreed order, which explicitly stated that Defendants were not to enter "Tract 5," while the Bentons could not enter "Tracts 1-4" and "Tract 6." However, since signing the order, the Bentons showed Curtis had repeatedly trespassed on Tract 5, as well as Paul's private property, with impunity. The chancery court was within its authority to enforce the agreed order. The chancellor's findings of contempt were supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the chancery court did not abuse its discretion in granting Paul's petition for contempt.
CARLTON AND WILSON, P.JJ., GREENLEE, McDONALD, LAWRENCE, McCARTY AND SMITH, JJ., CONCUR. WESTBROOKS AND EMFINGER, JJ., NOT PARTICIPATING.
Curtis does not argue that he or his ancestors were "Freedmen" but Indians by blood. Even if he did argue he was a descendant of the Freedmen, he offers no proof of this status either. Further, even if he proved it, the tribe currently does not recognize the Freedmen as tribal citizens: in 1979, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation (MCN) adopted a new constitution whereby Freedmen descendants are not entitled to tribal citizenship and are not recognized as citizens of the tribe. Bernhardt, 385 F. Supp. 3d at 19. The new constitution "stripped individuals on the 1906 Creek Freedmen Rolls and their then-living lineal descendants of their MCN citizenship; and [it]... prevented the unborn lineal descendants of individuals who were enrolled on the 1906 Creek Freedmen Rolls from becoming citizens of MCN." Id. Recently, however, the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma is considering changes to their constitution that would allow descendants of Freedmen to become full tribal citizens. See Associated Press, Two Oklahoma Tribes Consider Tribal Citizenship for Freedmen, ABC News (May 28, 2021), https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/oklahoma-tribes-tribal-citizenship-freedmen-77970134.