The Supreme Court’s Last 30 Years of Federal Indian Law: Looking for Equilibrium or Supremacy?

Skibine, Alexander Tallchief

For 187 years, Indian nations status in the United States has not been fully developed or consistently approached within the law. They are viewed as Domestic Dependent Nations located within the geographical boundaries of the United States. Although Chief Justice John Marshall acknowledged that Indian nations had a certain amount of sovereignty, the exact extent of such sovereignty as well as the place of tribes within the federal system has remained ill-defined. This Article examines what has been the role of the Supreme Court in integrating Indian nations as the third Sovereign within our federalist system. The Article accomplishes this task by examining the Court’s Indian law record in the last 30 years. The comprehensive survey of Indian law decisions indicates that while the tribal win-loss record at the Supreme Court is improving, the Court has had difficulties upholding the federal policy of respecting tribal sovereignty and encouraging tribal self-government.

After categorizing the cases between victories and losses, the Article divides the cases into categories for analytical purposes. The Second half of the Article focuses on the interaction between the Court and Congress concerning the incorporation of tribes as the third sovereign within the federalist system, and ends by arguing that through its disproportionate use of federal common law in its Indian law decisions, the Court has not attempted to reach a consensus with Congress about the place of Indian nations within our federalism.

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Columbia Journal of Race and Law

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November 12, 2018