Legal claims are inherently disruptive. Plaintiffs’ suits invariably seek to unsettle the status quo. On occasion, the remedies to legal claims can be so disruptive-that is, impossible to enforce or implement in a fair and equitable manner-that courts simply will not issue them. In the area of federal Indian law, American Indian tribal claims not only disrupt the status quo but may even disrupt so-called settled expectations of those affected by the claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has dismissed a round of Indian land claims at the pleading stage, including Onondaga Nation v. New York, because it considered the claims so disruptive.
We agree that Indian legal claims are inherently disruptive and may implicate the centuries-old settled expectations of state and local governments and non-Indians. It is empirically and categorically false, however, that the remedies tribal interests seek are impossible to enforce or implement in a fair or equitable manner. Every year in cases against state governments and their political subdivisions, Indian tribes settle long-standing claims that at their outset, often appear intractable, if not downright impossible, to remedy. The recent settlements of claims by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, and five Michigan Anishinaabe tribes demonstrate the falsehood of the idea that Indian claims are too disruptive to be remedied. These negotiated settlements powerfully illustrate that the disruption produced by Indian claims has an important function: forcing federal, state, and tribal governments to creatively seek solutions to difficult governance issues in Indian country.
Part I of this Essay describes recent common law, which dismisses Indian claims on the grounds that they are too disruptive. Part II briefly surveys the history of the relationship between Indians and the United States. Part III describes recent settlements between tribal and local governments. Part IV presents our theory of tribal disruption based on notions of ecological disturbance, studied in ecology and related fields. We argue that ecological disturbance in linked social-ecological systems offers a useful analog to the disruptive nature of Indian claims. These claims can be compared to disturbances in rivers, forests, or other ecosystems. Floods, forest fires, and windstorms break down existing structures, allowing space for reorganization, diversification, and new growth. Tribal claims similarly clear out a legal space for creative and improved governance institutions.