Commentary on “Confusion” and “Complexity” in Indian Law (Updated with Blake Watson Materials)

Much of Indian law is common law “made” by federal judges, and most especially the Supreme Court. As Peter Vicaire’s research demonstrates below, the Court has referred to its own common law as an “intricate web of judicially made Indian law”, but more often as a complex and confusing body of law.

As a general matter, it seems that whenever the Supreme Court is about to announce a change in the federal common law as it relates to Indians and Indian tribes, if it is announcing a restriction on tribal authority, the Court will characterize Indian law as “complex” or “confusing.” Conversely, when the Court is defending or supporting tribal authority, it doesn’t. I’m generalizing here, of course. Often, the Court doesn’t describe its common law (or Congressional policy) this way, or at all. But would anyone describe federal common law as confusing unless they’re about to criticize it (or change it, in the case of a court ruling)? Probably not.

These rhetorical flourishes are useful in understanding how a court (or commentator) is thinking. Tribal advocates, like most commentators, describe Indian law as confusing and complex. Maybe that should stop. Justice Thomas, for example (see below, numbers 9 and 10), agrees, and would vote to radically alter Indian law to make it less complex (that is, get rid of it altogether, especially the tribal sovereignty part).

This spring, I made an effort to teach my Federal Indian Law students that Indian law is not as complex as it seems. It surely isn’t as complex as Indian law outsiders (bad word, I know) suggest. [Update — Blake Watson wrote about this in 1998 — worth re-reading his excellent paper: 23UDaytonLRev437. We will also link to his excellent “thrust” and “parry” quotations below as Appendix 2.]

That said, if anyone needs a citation for how confusing (and “bizarre,” convoluted, complicated, and any number of other adjectives or descriptors — “idiosyncratic silo of doctrine” is my favorite) Indian law is, see Allan Erbsen, Constitutional Spaces, 95 Minn. L. Rev. 1168, 1253-58 (2011) (pdf here). A few excerpts:

The law governing jurisdiction over Indian territory is a convoluted mess. Confusion arises because tribes retain vestiges of their prior sovereignty, yet operate within a constitutional regime that does not explicitly recognize that sovereignty. Land that is nominally under tribal control is therefore not exclusively under tribal control. Wherever there is nonexclusivity there is concurrence, and wherever there is concurrence there are questions about how to allocate shared authority. Courts and commentators have for centuries noted the vexing problems arising from concurrent jurisdiction between the United States, individual states, and tribes over Indian lands.


Indians thus exist within a constitutional gray area—not quite foreign, but not quite domestic. This gray area is tangible because Indians and Tribes occupy physical space.  The existence of such space raises questions about who controls it (the Tribes, the states, or the United States) and what can, cannot, or must happen within it. The Constitution does not explicitly answer these questions….


Adding a third sovereign (tribes) to the mix further complicates the problem. It was thus inevitable that conflicts would arise between federal, state, and tribal efforts to regulate activity on tribal land, and that courts would need to develop doctrines for resolving competing claims of jurisdiction under a web of statutes and treaties.


The result of this predictable complexity is that tribal lands have a bizarre status. Tribes are treated as “domestic dependant nations,” which is a double oxymoron: nations generally are neither domestic nor dependant. Congress has codified this unusual terminology in statutes referring to “Indian country.” The practical meaning of this nation-within-a-nation and country-within-a-country status is uncertain because the land that tribes occupy bears little resemblance to anything in the Constitution’s typology of spaces. Formally, tribal lands lie within states’ territory, although until recently this was unclear and courts often characterized tribal lands as if they were outside the states.


[F]uture scholarship should consider whether analogizing Indian lands to other kinds of constitutional spaces can suggest helpful ways of conceptualizing particular doctrinal problems, such as the role of state law on tribal land and tribal law on state land, the preemptive force of federal law, and the content and legitimacy of federal common law. The goal would be to situate Indian law within a broader constitutional landscape rather than to view it solely as an idiosyncratic silo of doctrine.

Appendix (Peter Vicaire’s research on this question):

  1. “Indian Law” draws principally upon the treaties drawn and executed by the Executive Branch and legislation passed by Congress. These instruments, which beyond their actual text form the backdrop for the intricate web of judicially made Indian law, cannot be interpreted in isolation but must be read in light of the common notions of the day and the assumptions of those who drafted them.  Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191, 206 (1978).
  2. Our relations with the Indian tribes have “always been . . . anomalous . . . and of a complex character.” Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 436 U.S. 49, 71 (1978) (quoting United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375, 381 (1886)).
  3. These abstract principles do not and could not adequately describe the complex jurisdictional rules that have developed over the years in cases involving jurisdictional clashes between the States and tribal Indians since Worcester v. Georgia was decided.  Washington v. Confederated Bands and Tribes of Yakima Indian Nations, 439 U.S. 463, 471, n. 7 (1979).
  4. Jurisdiction in “Indian country,” . . . is governed by a complex patchwork of federal, state, and tribal law. Duro v. Reina, 495 U.S. 676, 680, n.1 (1990) (Brennan, J., dissenting).
  5. This country has pursued contradictory policies with respect to the Indians.  Duro v. Reina, 495 U.S. 676 (1990) (Brennan, J., dissenting).
  6. [I]t would contradict “the many and complex intervening jurisdictional statutes” dealing with States’ civil and criminal jurisdiction over reservation Indians; and it would produce almost surreal administrative problems, making the applicable law of civil relations depend not upon the locus of the transaction but upon the character of the reservation land owned by one or both parties. County of Yakima v. Confederated Tribes and Bands of Yakima Indians, 502 U.S. 251, 262-63 (1992).
  7. The resulting law applicable in tribal courts is a complex “mix of tribal codes and federal, state, and traditional law,” National American Indian Court Judges Assn., Indian Courts and the Future 43 (1978), which would be unusually difficult for an outsider to sort out. Nevada v. Hicks, 533 U.S. 353, 385-85 (2001).
  8. Federal Indian policy is, to say the least, schizophrenic. And this confusion continues to infuse federal Indian law and our cases.  U.S. v. Lara, 541 U.S. 193, 219 (2004) (Thomas, J., concurring).
  9. [F]ederal Indian law is at odds with itself. . . . The Federal Government cannot simultaneously claim power to regulate virtually every aspect of the tribes through ordinary domestic legislation and also maintain that the tribes possess anything resembling “sovereignty.” U.S. v. Lara, 541 U.S. 193, 225 (2004) ((Thomas, J., concurring).
  10. It seems to me that much of the confusion reflected in our [Indian law] precedent arises from two largely incompatible and doubtful assumptions. U.S. v. Lara, 541 U.S. 193, 214-15 (2004) (Thomas, J., concurring).

Appendix 2 — thanks to Blake Watson!

Blake Watson SCT Indian law contradictory quotes

5 thoughts on “Commentary on “Confusion” and “Complexity” in Indian Law (Updated with Blake Watson Materials)

  1. Kate Fort May 2, 2011 / 11:04 am

    The “complexity” of federal Indian law was used by the Second Circuit to justify the application of laches and other equitable defenses to the Cayuga Nation’s land claim:

    “One of the few incontestable propositions about this unusually complex and confusing area of law is that doctrines and categorizations applicable in other areas do not translate neatly to these claims. See, e.g., Oneida II, 470 U.S. at 240-44, 105 S.Ct. 1245 (holding that the general law favoring the borrowing of state law limitations-periods does not apply to federal Indian land claims); Mohegan Tribe v. Connecticut, 638 F.2d 612, 614-15 & n. 3 (2d Cir.1980) (holding that adverse possession does not run against Indian land). * * *
    In light of the unusual considerations at play in this area of the law, and our agreement that ordinary common law principles are indeed ‘not readily transferrable to this action,’ we see no reason why the equitable principles identified by the Supreme Court in Sberrill [sic] should not apply to this case, whether or not it could be technically classified as an action at law.” Cayuga Indian Nation v. Pataki, 413 F.3d 266, 276 (2nd Cir., 2005)

    The court here manages an impressive two fold hit–one, applying equitable defenses to a case at law and two, suggesting that the two cases it cites to, which are used to defend Indian lands, are examples of the crazy and confusing nature of federal Indian law.

  2. Garry Umphress May 2, 2011 / 1:49 pm

    RE: “idiosyncratic silo of doctrine”. Is not the foundation of the silo refered to built on the foundations of the Doctrines of Discovery?
    Placing a legal band aid over the silo without addressing the foundation will definately help!
    Addressing the issues in the foundation seems like it can achieve deeper and wider opportunities. Not to mention the restoration of the identity( spiritually, physically and nationally( all of Turtle Island).

    Closing question. What if the doctrines and “Christianization” was all about a bigger picture that will transcend the limited Indian Legal systems?

  3. Sarah Krakoff May 2, 2011 / 1:49 pm

    I agree with Peter Vicaire that scholars should stop contributing to the view that federal Indian law is any more bizarre, anomalous, confusing or incoherent than many other fields of law. It’s not that Indian law is always straightforward, flowing neatly from some agreed upon set of principles. Rather, it’s that almost no other body of decisional law fits that description either. I think about this whenever I teach the Erie doctrine in civil procedure, or when I talk to my criminal law colleagues about the mess that is federal sentencing law, or when I read about first amendment doctrine. Focusing on “messiness” and the need for greater coherence or uniformity with other bodies of law is, as Vicaire suggests, often a prelude to overlooking the facts and values at the heart of Indian law that make it inevitably and importantly complicated, but no more complicated than any other contested area of the law.

  4. sam deloria May 2, 2011 / 3:03 pm

    people who revere Hammurabi, Moses, the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence and the Constution then refer to “ancient” Indian treaties, in the sense of outdated and irrelevant. States often suggested that Federal Indian law jurisdictional principles are hazy or unsettled, when they meant they didn’t like them. but that, at least, seems to have worked for them.

  5. Scott May 2, 2011 / 11:47 pm

    Yes, but Sarah, the difference is that the Erie Doctrine was not part of the colonizing process that was imposed by an invading force, with the aim of destroying our independent indigenous nations. If the invaders want to destroy themselves with their convoluted and cannibalizing legal fictions, then so be it. It is quite another proposition when they impose that psychopathy on other peoples of the earth. Such appears to be the problem with non-Indian attorneys and professors, it seems too easy for them to forget (or forgive) that essential point.

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