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Military and Native American Criminal Justice - Limited Criminal Jurisdiction

indian crimes tribal act

Native Americans and white Americans do not use the same kinds of punishment, due to cultural differences. In the 1880s the Lakota tribe in South Dakota resolved a murder case through traditional tribal means. The murderer was required to provide the victim's family with goods and provisions. Though the family was satisfied with the outcome, the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees tribal matters, was not.

The Department of the Interior pressed for extending U.S. criminal jurisdiction into Indian Country for major criminal offenses. Congress passed the Major Crimes Act of 1885 to extend U.S. jurisdiction over seven major crimes committed in Indian Country. The crimes were murder, manslaughter, arson, burglary, and various forms of assault. The list of crimes was later expanded to include twelve crimes, including rape.

The General Crimes Act, first passed in 1834, established U.S. jurisdiction over crimes involving Native Americans and non-Indians. If an Indian robs a non-Indian on a reservation, A U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer investigating a car accident in Montana. (AP/Wide World Photos)

U.S. criminal jurisdiction applies. If the Native American commits the same crime against another reservation member, then tribal courts handle the case.

The biggest change in tribal criminal justice came in 1934 when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act. The act encouraged tribes to establish governments modeled after the U.S. justice systems. These new governments replaced traditional tribunals and their practices, using the adversarial or two-party system of U.S. courts. Many of the tribes adopted new tribal constitutions but could not afford to operate as independent court systems. They relied on the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to provide a judicial system.


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