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Native American Rights

Federal Power Over Native American Rights

Although Native Americans have been held to have both inherent rights and rights guaranteed, either explicitly or implicitly, by treaties with the federal government, the government retains the ultimate power and authority to either abrogate or protect Native American rights. This power stems from several legal sources. One is the power that the Constitution gives to Congress to make regulations governing the territory belonging to the United States (Art. IV, Sec. 3, Cl. 2), and another is the president's constitutional power to make treaties (Art. II, Sec. 2, Cl. 2). A more commonly cited source of federal power over Native American affairs is the COMMERCE CLAUSE of the U.S. Constitution, which provides that "Congress shall have the Power … to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes" (Art. I, Sec. 8, Cl. 3). This clause has resulted in what is known as Congress's "plenary power" over Indian affairs, which means that Congress has the ultimate right to pass legislation governing Native Americans, even when that legislation conflicts with or abrogates Indian treaties. The most well-known case supporting this congressional right is Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, 187 U.S. 553, 23 S. Ct. 216, 47 L. Ed. 299 (1903), in which Congress broke a treaty provision that had guaranteed that no more cessions of land would be made without the consent of three-fourths of the adult males from the Kiowa and Comanche tribes. In justifying this abrogation, Justice EDWARD D. WHITE declared that when "treaties were entered into between the United States and a tribe of Indians it was never doubted that the power to abrogate existed in Congress, and that in a contingency such power might be availed of from considerations of governmental policy."

Another source for the federal government's power over Native American affairs is what is called the "trust relationship" between the government and Native American tribes. This "trust relationship" or "trust responsibility" refers to the federal government's consistent promise, in the treaties that it signed, to protect the safety and well-being of the tribal members in return for their willingness to give up their lands. This notion of a trust relationship between Native Americans and the federal government was developed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in the opinions that he wrote for the three cases on tribal sovereignty described above, which became known as the Marshall Trilogy. In the second of these cases, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Marshall specifically described the tribes as "domestic dependant nations" whose relation to the United States was like "that of a ward to his guardian." Similarly, in Worcester v. Georgia, Marshall declared that the federal government had entered into a special relationship with the Cherokees through the treaties they had signed, a relationship involving certain moral obligations. "The Cherokees," he wrote, "acknowledge themselves to be under the protection of the United States, and of no other power. Protection does not imply the destruction of the protected."

The federal government has often used this trust relationship to justify its actions on behalf of Native American tribes, such as its defense of Indian fishing and hunting rights and the establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Perhaps more often, however, the federal government has used the claim of a trust relationship to stretch its protective duty toward tribes into an almost unbridled power over them. The United States, for example, is the legal title-holder to most Indian lands, giving it the power to dispose of and manage those lands, as well as to derive income from them. The federal government has also used its powers in ways that seem inconsistent with a moral duty to protect Indian interests, such as terminating dozens of Indian tribes and consistently breaking treaty provisions. Because the trust responsibility is moral rather than legal, Native American tribes have had very little power or ability to enforce the promises and obligations of the federal government.

Several disputes have erupted over the relationship between the federal government and Native Americans. Beginning in 1998, beneficiaries of Individual Indian Money (IIM), which is held in trust by the federal government, brought a CLASS ACTION against the secretary of the interior and others, alleging mismanagement and breach of fiduciary duties against trustee-delegates of the funds. The case has spawned dozens of orders and rulings by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

In 1999, the district court in Cobell v. Babbitt, 91 F. Supp. 2d 1 (D.D.C. 1999), found that the secretary of the interior and others had violated their fiduciary duties and ordered the secretary to file quarterly reports detailing progress in fulfilling these orders. The U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed this ruling in Cobell v. Norton, 240 F.3d 1081 (D.C. Cir. 2001). Since the appeals court ruling, the district court has considered numerous motions and has issued several orders, including a holding that the secretary of the interior and the secretary of the Treasury were guilty of civil CONTEMPT for refusing to comply with a court order to produce certain documents.

Other issues involving the federal government's power over Native Americans have likewise resulted in litigation. The struggle to define the jurisdictional boundaries between Native American tribal courts and state courts has occupied the federal courts for many years. Although Indian reservations are deemed sovereign states, both Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have placed limitations on their sovereignty. Therefore, as specific issues arise about tribal court jurisdiction, the federal courts must intervene to decide these cases.

Such was the case in Nevada v. Hicks, 533 U.S. 353, 121 S. Ct. 2304, 150 L. Ed. 2d 398 (2001), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tribal courts do not have jurisdiction to hear federal CIVIL RIGHTS lawsuits concerning allegedly unconstitutional actions by a state government officer on tribal land. The case arose when the home of a member of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribes of western Nevada was searched under suspicion that the tribe member had killed a bighorn sheep in violation of Nevada law. The tribe member brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against the game warden who had searched his house. The suit was brought in tribal court, which ruled that it had jurisdiction to hear the claim against the warden.

The district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit both found that the warden was required to exhaust his remedies in the tribal court before proceeding to federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court, per Justice ANTONIN SCALIA disagreed, finding that Congress had not extended the jurisdiction of tribal court to hear federal civil rights claims. The case severely limits the scope of tribal jurisdiction.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: National Environmental Policy Act of (1969) to NoticeNative American Rights - Tribal Sovereignty, Treaty Rights, Reserved Rights Doctrine, Federal Power Over Native American Rights, Hunting And Fishing Rights