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American Indian Law: A Beginner's Guide

Court Cases

Federal court decisions have carved the framework for American Indian law. Some famous court cases have discussed topics ranging from fishing rights, like United States v. Washington External (the Boldt decision External), to matters involving taxation, such as those discussed in Wagnon v. Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

Because the issues covered in American Indian case law are nearly endless, this page focuses on landmark cases and more recent litigation argued before the Indian Claims Commission. Researchers who are interested in learning more about American Indian decisions may find useful resources linked in the tabbed box at the bottom of this page.

A stereograph card with images of the U.S. Supreme Court Chamber from 1865

Ingersoll View Company, contributor. U. S. Supreme Court Chamber, Capitol, Wash. 1865. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Marshall Trilogy

American Indian law as we know it today is rooted in Supreme Court cases from the early 19th century. Three cases in particular, sometimes referred to as the Marshall Trilogy, lay the foundation for the federal government's interaction and relationship with Indian tribes.

In Johnson v. M’Intosh, the Supreme Court held that the federal government has the exclusive right to negotiate the transfer of land from American Indian tribes. The Court further determined that American Indian tribes did not own the land that is now the United States before or after the arrival of European settlers, but instead had a "title of occupancy." This opinion gave legal justification for the federal government to take land where tribes resided without just compensation, side-stepping the Fifth Amendment's takings clause.

Cherokee Nation v. Georgia arose from an attempt by a delegation of Cherokee to stop the state of Georgia from extending state laws and authority over the Cherokee Nation. The Supreme Court declined review of the case, concluding that Cherokee Nation did not have standing to sue the government because it was not a sovereign nation. Instead, the Supreme Court concluded that a tribe is a “domestic dependent nation,” and the relationship between the federal government and tribes more closely resembles that of a “ward to his guardian.”

In the third case in the Marshall trilogy, Worcester v. Georgia, the Court held that state laws "could have no force” in Indian territory, and that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the exclusive authority to regulate Indian affairs.

Indian Claims Commission

In 1946, Congress passed the Indian Claims Commission Act. This law established the Indian Claims Commission (Commission) to resolve specific tribal claims seeking compensatory damages against the United States. For example, the statute authorized the Commission to hear "claims which would result if the treaties, contracts, and agreements between the [tribe] and the United States were revised on the ground of fraud, duress, unconscionable consideration, mutual or unilateral mistake . . . or any other ground . . ." Indian Claims Commission Act, ch. 959, 60 Stat. 1049, 1050 (Aug. 13, 1946). In the decades preceding the Commission's creation, tribes and tribal members had tried to file complaints against the federal government through the Court of Claims, by jurisdictional acts of Congress. Resolution through this process, however, was time-consuming and difficult. According to United States Indian Claims Commission, August 13, 1946-September 30, 1978: Final Report (PDF) External (p. 3), "by 1946, almost 200 claims were filed with the Court of Claims; but only 29 received awards, while the bulk of the rest were dismissed on technicalities[.]"

Tribes had five years from the Commission's establishment to file their claims. Although the Commission was originally intended to terminate after a decade, Congress passed laws extending the Commission several times before it was disbanded in 1978. Because many claims remained pending at this time, unresolved matters were transferred to the Court of Claims (now called the U.S. Court of Federal Claims). The open dockets were adjudicated and resolved over the next several decades, with the final case reaching a settlement in 2006.

Researchers may access Commission decisions by using the resources below.

Case Law Resources

Below you will find a list of selected legal reference materials relating to American Indian case law from the Law Library's collection.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional digital content are provided when available.

The following resources link to freely available online resources regarding American Indian case law.

The following resources link to research guides on the topic of case law research.

The subscription resources marked with a padlock are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.