Federal Indian law forms part of the bedrock of American jurisprudence. Indeed, critical parts of the pre-civil war constitutional canon were defined in Federal Indian law cases that simultaneously provided legal justification for American westward expansion onto unceded Indian lands. As a result, Federal Indian law makes up an inextricable part of American rule of law. Despite its importance, Federal Indian law follows a long and circuitous road that requires “wander[ing] the maze of Indian statutes and case law tracing back [over] 100 years.” That road has long oscillated between two poles, with the Supreme Court sometimes applying foundation principles that view tribes as sovereigns “retaining all their original natural rights,” and at other times treating tribes as mere “wards subject to a [self-imposed] guardian.”
The Supreme Court’s respect for tribal sovereignty and self-
determination reached its zenith in the so-called “modern era” of Federal Indian law, spanning from 1959 through the late 1970s. During this era, the Court tended to adhere to federal Indian jurisprudence and solidified a relatively coherent doctrine based upon the foundation principles developed in the 1830s. The late Dean David Getches described the modern era as a time that “encouraged a reinvigoration of tribal governments throughout the country. During this period, tribes gained political influence and economic security as [the federal government] generally promoted a policy of tribal self-determination.”
The Court turned away from its foundation Indian law principles with the onset of the 1980s, and the departure intensified as Chief Justice William Rehnquist was appointed chief justice in 1986. Since then, the touchstone of the Supreme Court’s federal Indian jurisprudence has been to employ a “subjectivist” approach whereby it “gauges tribal sovereignty as a function of changing conditions”—demographic, social, political, and economic—and the expectations of non-Indians that may be potentially impacted by the exercise of tribal power. These cases have invariably involved fear-based concerns that a decision in favor of the tribes will alter the settled balance of power between tribes, states, and non-Indians
As a result, the Supreme Court became a strikingly hostile place for American Indian tribes as the Court became increasingly willing to divest tribes of governmental powers, not by upholding the enactments of Congress, but through its own interpretation of what tribal inherent governmental rights ought to be.
The appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor and, more recently, Justice Neil Gorsuch seems to have brought change to the Court’s direction in Indian law cases. Since then, cases have been consistently decided in favor of tribal litigants by reaffirming treaty rights through the application of foundation principles that focus on the plain language of treaties and the application of the Indian law canons of construction. However, to be sure, even the Rehnquist Court did “recite and sometimes act upon foundation principles,” but those cases were limited to situations where “non-Indian interests [were] not seriously threatened.” All of Indian Country waited for, or perhaps dreaded, a true litmus test.
That test came to the Supreme Court in the form of two Indian law cases—Sharp v. Murphy and McGirt v. Oklahoma—both of which were framed by non-Indian parties to affect the interests of an estimated 1.8 million people in the eastern half of Oklahoma. Ready or not, Indian Country found its test case, which squarely placed the Court’s competing jurisprudential philosophies—its foundation principles and its “subjectivist” approach—on a collision course.
In a powerful and uncharacteristically passionate decision, Justice Gorsuch wrote for a 5-4 majority, upholding treaty-based rights to re-recognize the historic reservation boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the fourth largest Indigenous nation in the United States. The decision was the fourth consecutive treaty-rights victory and seemed to solidify a shift toward a consistent approach rooted in foundation principles.
The victory could be short-lived. Just weeks after the Court’s decision in McGirt, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, once again shifting the make-up of the United States Supreme Court. As a result, Federal Indian law once again finds itself at a crossroads. The Murphy and McGirt decisions are landmark decisions that bring change to the legal landscape of much of Oklahoma. It remains to be seen whether the perceived new Supreme Court era in Indian law is here to stay.
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Dylan R. Hedden-Nicely & Stacy L. Leeds,
A Familiar Crossroads: McGirt v. Oklahoma and the Future of Federal Indian Law Canon,
N.M. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/nmlr/vol51/iss2/2