Cathay Smith: “Oral Tradition and the Kennewick Man”

Cathay Y.N. Smith has published “Oral Tradition and the Kennewick Man” (PDF) in the Yale Law Journal Forum.

An excerpt:

On the eve of the upcoming repatriation of the Kennewick Man, this Essay focuses on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ summary rejection of the oral-tradition13 evidence introduced by Native American claimants in Bonnichsen v. United States which, as we now know, was ultimately more reliable than the then-available written historical and scientific records upon which the court relied. Courts disadvantage Native American claimants when they summarily reject oral-tradition evidence and prohibit “a major source of their knowledge, transmitted orally, across time, and in a distinctive style, [from being] meaningfully . . . entered as evidence, with the same consideration as written historical evidence.”14 Furthermore, courts’ inconsistent treatment of oral tradition also results in uncertainty and deprives Native American claimants of clear guidelines on what evidence they should or should not submit to prove their claims. This Essay suggests four factors for courts to consider on a case-by-case basis in the future to evaluate the probative value of oral-tradition evidence. It then proceeds to examine the inconsistent treatment of oral tradition evidence by U.S. courts, and urges courts to employ a balanced approach and adopt the factors offered in this Essay when evaluating Native American oral tradition in legal cases involving Native Americans claimants.

Fletcher Commentary on Dollar General in the Yale Law Journal Forum

Here is “Contract and (Tribal) Jurisdiction.” (PDF)


Consider two commercial contracts. The first requires customers to waive their rights to bring class actions against large businesses in favor of private arbitration. The second requires a reservation leaseholder to adjudicate disputes in tribal court. Both contracts require dispute resolution in fora over which the Supreme Court does not exercise supervisory jurisdiction. Both arbitration and tribal courts are favored by acts of Congress.1 Both contracts are hotly contested in the Supreme Court. But the arbitration clause contract has been affirmed in a series of recent decisions.2 The tribal court contract, by contrast, is pending before the Court in Dollar General Corp. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.3 Ironically, while the more conservative Justices signed on to the arbitration clause decisions, these same Justices may be Dollar General’s best bets for escaping tribal jurisdiction. This short Essay details the key arguments in Dollar General and argues that to undo the tribal contract would unnecessarily and unconstitutionally undo the right to contract for Indian nations.


Justice Scalia’s death may mean a 4-4 tie in the Dollar General case. Justice Scalia was in the majority in the most recent tribal civil jurisdiction dispute, Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle Co.,32 decided by a 5-4 vote, split along the traditional conservative-liberal voting pattern. In Plains Commerce, Justice Scalia asked a nonmember company that had not specified jurisdiction in its commercial agreement with a tribal member-owned business: “[Y]our client could have obtained that certainly [sic] by inserting a choice of law provision providing that any disputes would be resolved somewhere else, couldn’t it?”33 The answer in that case from the nonmember? “I think that in the face of silence in the contract, the general rule [against tribal jurisdiction] controls rather than its exceptions.”34 There is a choice of law provision in Dollar General, negotiated at arm’s length by sophisticated business entities, and it points to tribal court jurisdiction.35