Williams v. Lee
The Treaty Of 1868
The Supreme Court found general proof of the Navajo right to self-government in the Worcester decision. More specific proof was found in a treaty signed on 1 June 1868 by the Navajo tribe and General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was acting on behalf of a U.S. government peace commission. According to the Treaty of 1868, state courts were to have jurisdiction in suits by reservation Indians against non-Indians. Trials involving crimes by non-Indians against other non-Indians on reservation land were similarly to be decided in state courtrooms. Jurisdiction over crimes committed by or against Indians, however, was to remain exclusively in the hands of Navajo tribal courts. Then, in 1871, Congress declared that no Indian tribe should be considered an independent nation with which the U.S. government could execute a treaty, reversing the implications of the Worcester decision. The 1871 law was not retroactive, however, so the terms of the Treaty of 1868 and its rules governing legal jurisdiction survived. Justice Black and his colleagues found no reason to declare the rules invalid 90 years later.
The Court did not examine the matter of the money Paul and Lorena Williams allegedly owed Hugh Lee. By unanimously affirming the right of Navajo self-government, the Court ensured that any such legal claims were to be decided by a tribal court.