David Moore and Michalyn Steele on Revitalizing Indian Sovereignty in Treatymaking

David H. Moore and Michalyn Steele have published “Revitalizing Indian Sovereignty in Treatymaking” in the N.Y.U. Law Review.


In the current model of federal-Indian relations, the United States claims a plenary legislative power, as putative guardian, to regulate Indian tribes. Under this model, tribes are essentially wards in a state of pupilage. But the federal-tribal relationship was not always so. Originally, the federal government embraced, even promoted, a more robust model of tribal sovereignty in which federal-Indian treatymaking and diplomacy figured prominently. Through treaties, the United States and tribes negotiated territorial boundaries, forged alliances, facilitated trade, and otherwise managed their relations. In 1871, Congress attempted to put an end to federal-Indian treatymaking by purporting to strip tribes of their status as legitimate treaty partners. In a rider to the 1871 Appropriations Act, Congress prohibited the recognition of tribes as sovereign entities with whom the United States could negotiate treaties. Since that time, the 1871 Act and the plenary power-pupilage model it entrenched have grown deep roots in federal Indian law and the policies of the United States. Congress has aggrandized its role in tribal life at the expense of tribal sovereignty, and the coordinate branches of the federal government have acquiesced in this foundational shift.

The literature of federal Indian law has wrestled with the doctrine of plenary power, contemplated the fate of the federal-tribal treaty relationship, and questioned the constitutionality of the 1871 rider. This Article posits new arguments for the unconstitutionality of the 1871 Act, uprooting the presumptions underlying the Act and revitalizing the prospect of federal-Indian treatymaking. Two recent developments provide an opportunity for such a transformation. In Zivotofsky v. Kerry, the Supreme Court held that the President alone possesses the power to recognize foreign states and governments. While Zivotofsky was a landmark case for U.S. foreign relations law, its potential significance for federal Indian law has gone underappreciated. Zivotofsky did not directly address the locus of power to recognize tribal sovereignty to enter treaties, but it prompts the question and provides a blueprint for arriving at an answer. Engaging that blueprint, this Article argues that the President possesses the exclusive power to recognize tribes’ sovereign capacity to enter treaties. The result: The 1871 Act is unconstitutional because it attempts to limit that power. In our view, the President can and should unilaterally reengage in federal-Indian treatymaking, revitalizing treatymaking and reanimating the sovereignty model of federal-Indian relations.

A second development, the Supreme Court’s decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, is less fundamental to the argument but also significant for revitalizing tribal sovereignty. In McGirt, the Court recognized the ongoing vitality of federal-Indian treaties that were entered when the sovereignty model prevailed, strengthening both claims to tribal sovereignty and the viability of treatymaking in the federal-Indian relationship.

The implications of these developments are significant. Deracinating the 1871 Act disrupts the dominance of the plenary power doctrine and pupilage model with their attendant abuses, more fully realizes the promise of the United States’ policy of Indian self-determination and commitment to international norms, and generates positive ripples for Indigenous-state relationships across the globe.

HIGHLY recommended.

End of Federal-Tribal Treatymaking & Great Chicago Fire of 1871 Coincidence or Correlation?

Interesting New Scholarship on Cultural Linguistics and Treaty Language

Sammy Matsaw, Dylan Nicely-Hedden, and Barbara A. Cosens have posted “Cultural Linguistics and Treaty Language: A Modernized Approach to Interpreting Treaty Language to Capture the Tribe’s Understanding“, forthcoming in Environmental Law, on SSRN.

Here is the abstract:

Language is a reflection of a thought world. A worldview that has been shaped by place to describe one’s identity in space and time does not equate to species relatedness as a default to know one another. In the legal system of the United States, there is acknowledgement of treaties in colonized lands that there are rights granted from the tribes and not to them, and those rights are landbased. Yet, the Indigenous voice is dead before arrival, before it enters the room of science, justice, academe, or otherwise. The exclusion of Indigenous peoples at the table of knowledge and from the power to make decisions within their homelands has proven a detriment to the land, waterways, flora and fauna, and human beings. Nowhere would tribal peoples have agreed to our own destruction, it is and has been a forced hand. This Article explores the changing interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court canon to construe treaties with Native American tribes as the tribe would have understood them, and why mere translation of Native language to English fails to capture a Native understanding. Through the juxtaposition of western legal analysis and the powerful voice of a Native scientist, this Article illustrates how difficult and yet how necessary it will be to bridge that divide if this powerful western nation is to fulfill its sacred promises to Native people. As a contribution to the Issue on the fiftieth anniversary of United States v. Oregon, this Article looks to the future of federal jurisprudence on the interpretation of treaties with American Indians and envisions one in which reconciliation through an understanding of different worldviews is possible.

Fletcher & Singel on the Historical Basis for the Trust Relationship between the US and Indian Children

Fletcher & Singel have posted “Indian Children and the Federal Tribal Trust Relationship” on SSRN.

Here is the abstract:

This article develops the history of the role of Indian children in the formation of the federal-tribal trust relationship and comes as constitutional challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) are now pending. We conclude the historical record demonstrates the core of the federal-tribal trust relationship is the welfare of Indian children and their relationship to Indian nations. The challenges to ICWA are based on legally and historically false assumptions about federal and state powers in relation to Indian children and the federal government’s trust relationship with Indian children.

Indian children have been a focus of federal Indian affairs at least since the Framing of the Constitution. The Founding Generation initially used Indian children as military and diplomatic pawns, and later undertook a duty of protection to Indian nations and, especially, Indian children. Dozens of Indian treaties memorialize and implement the federal government’s duty to Indian children. Sadly, the United States then catastrophically distorted that duty of protection by deviating from its constitution-based obligations well into the 20th century. It was during this Coercive Period that federal Indian law and policy largely became unmoored from the constitution.

The modern duty of protection, now characterized as a federal general trust relationship, is manifested in federal statutes such as ICWA and various self-determination acts that return self-governance to tribes and acknowledge the United States’ duty of protection to Indian children. The federal duty of protection of internal tribal sovereignty, which has been strongly linked to the welfare of Indian children since the Founding, is now as closely realized as it ever has been throughout American history. In the Self-Determination Era, modern federal laws, including ICWA, constitute a return of federal Indian law and policy to constitutional fidelity.

Fletcher Webinar on Indian Land Tenure Foundation’s “Native Land Law” — Treaties — June 11

ILTF is pleased to announce that Matthew Fletcher, Professor of Law and Director of the Indigenous Law & Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law, will be presenting at the June 11th Native Land Law CLE. Professor Fletcher will be discussing treaties.nativelandlaw_1

Professor Fletcher recently published the sixth edition of Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law (Thomson West 2011) with David Getches, Charles Wilkinson, and Robert Williams and American Indian Tribal Law (Aspen 2011), the first casebook for law students on tribal law. Fletcher’s book, The Return of the Eagle: The Legal History of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, was released by Michigan State University Press in 2012. Professor Fletcher has published articles with Arizona Law Review, Harvard Journal on Legislation, Hastings Law Journal, University of Colorado Law Review, Houston Law Review, Tulane Law Review, and many others. He is the primary editor and author of Turtle Talk, the leading law blog on American Indian law and policy.

The Native Land Law CLE series provides an overview of the 17 legal principles outlined in the legal treatise, Native Land Law: General Principles of Law Relating to Native Lands and Natural Resources, and offers analysis of federal laws and policies that impact the field of Indian law today. Professor Fletcher will offer his own insights into the significance of treaties during this month’s two-hour program.

The CLE will be offered from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. (CST) on Tuesday, June 11th.

Click here to learn more about the CLE and register for the program. http://www.iltf.org/native-land-law.

All of the previous CLE programs offered as part of the Native Land Law Series are available on demand. To view Professor Colette Routel’s presentation on the Fundamentals of Policy and History or Professor Lindsay Robertson’s presentation on the Discovery Doctrine, Plenary Power & Termination, visit us at http://www.iltf.org/native-land-law.

Harvard Law Review Student Note: “Indian Canon Originalism”

Harvard Law Review has published “Indian Canon Originalism.”

From the article:

Indian treaties are “quasi-constitutional” documents. So why not read them like constitutions? In fact, scholars of Indian law have urged federal judges to interpret Indian treaties “in the same manner as [they do] constitutional provisions.” But no scholar has ever explained how the principles of constitutional interpretation would actually apply to an Indian treaty — and whether those principles might change in that new environment. This Note attempts to do just that.

Second Circuit, over a Dissent, Denies En Banc Review of Shinnecock Casino Construction/Aboriginal Title Suit

Here is the dissent from the order denying en banc review:

CA2 Dissent from Denial of En Banc Petition — Shinnecock

The panel opinion and briefs are here.

Lower court materials are here and here.

Briefs in Shinnecock Second Circuit Gaming Case Now Available

We posted the opinion and lower court materials here.

And now the briefs:

Westwoods – Appellants

Westwoods – Appellees

Westwoods – Reply

Second Circuit Vacates Federal Court Injunction against Shinnecock Casino Construction in Southampton (Updated with Briefs)

Here is the opinion:


It’s the Second Circuit, so there are no briefs (unless someone sends them along). Here are the briefs:

Shinnecock Brief

State and Town Brief

An excerpt:

The Shinnecock Indian Nation and its tribal officials (collectively, the “Shinnecock” or the “Tribe”) appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Joseph F. Bianco, Judge). After a bench trial, the district court granted a permanent injunction prohibiting the Tribe from developing a casino on a plot of land known as Westwoods without complying with the laws of New York State and the Town of Southampton. The Shinnecock object to a number of the district court’s factual and legal conclusions, including its findings: (1) that tribal sovereign immunity from suit does not bar this action; (2) that the Shinnecock’s aboriginal title to the land at Westwoods was extinguished in the seventeenth century; (3) that even if aboriginal title had not been extinguished, equitable principles would prevent the Shinnecock’s development of a casino in violation of state and local law; and (4) that the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (“IGRA”) supplanted any federal common law right the Tribe may have had to operate the casino. They also argue that the Bureau of Indian Affairs’s recent recognition of the Shinnecock Indian Nation moots the injunction.

We conclude that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over this action, and thus do not reach the merits of this appeal.

Lower court materials are here and here.