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Native American Rights

When Europeans arrived in North America in the 1600s, they discovered that Native American tribes already occupied the land. Between the 1630s and the War of Independence, white settlers gradually pushed the Native Americans, whom they called "Indians," westward. The goals of the settlers, which included colonization, land exploitation, and religious conversion, led to cultural and social conflict that erupted in periodic "Indian wars."

After the formation of the United States, state and federal government leaders agreed that the nation needed to establish a national policy toward Native Americans. By the 1820s the government's policy was to remove Native Americans from their lands and resettle them in the "Great American Desert" to the west. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act (4 Stat. 411) and appropriated $500,000 for this purpose. During the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829–1837), ninety-four removal treaties were negotiated. By 1840 most of the Native Americans in the more settled states and territories had been sent west.

The U.S. Supreme Court confronted the issue of Native American rights in the Cherokee cases, the collective name for two cases of the 1830s: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. 1, 8 L. Ed. 25 (1831), and Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, 8 L. Ed. 483 (1832). In Cherokee Nation, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee Indians were not a sovereign nation. The following year Marshall issued an opinion that, while not overruling Cherokee Nation, held that the Cherokees were a nation with the right to retain independent political communities. President Jackson refused to abide by this ruling and supported the removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma, which took place in 1838–1839.

Few tribes willingly moved westward, resulting in more Indian wars. The Black Hawk War of 1832, fought in Illinois, illustrates the situation Native Americans faced. The Sauk and Fox tribes, who had been forced from their lands by white settlers, faced the prospect of famine but were reluctant to move west where they would have to confront the hostile Sioux nation. Accordingly, Chief Black Hawk led the Sauk and Fox in an unsuccessful campaign to reoccupy their former lands.

Throughout the nineteenth century, treaties were made in which tribes ceded areas of land to the federal government in return for compensation in the form of livestock, merchandise, and annuities. These agreements were often accompanied by the establishment of reservations. All treaties that the United States entered into prior to 1871 were written in the formal language of international covenants. The parties would sign the draft treaty, and the document would be submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification. After 1871 formal treaty arrangements were abandoned in favor of simple agreements between the government and Native American tribes. These agreements required the approval of both houses of Congress and had the same authority as the previous treaty forms, but they effectively abandoned the idea that Native American tribes were independent. For their part, the tribes came to distrust the federal government for not honoring the treaties, confining them to reservations, and ending a way of life that had endured for centuries. Not until the twentieth century, after the continent had been settled and the tribes restricted to reservations, did the federal government attempt to seek a different policy.

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