US Constitution & Native Rights

Historical Context of Native American Rights

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many treaties were made between the U.S. government and Native American tribes. These treaties often allowed for peace and the transfer or protection of tribal lands. However, the realities of power imbalances and settlers' desire for land often contradicted the agreements made on paper.

Starting with the Treaty of Fort Pitt in 1778, the U.S. made agreements that supposedly allowed for peace and the protection or relinquishment of tribal lands. This pattern emerged, blurring the lines between appeasement and conquest from the perspectives of both Native tribes and U.S. policymakers.

The treaties often outlined rights for tribes, but the influx of settlers quickly contradicted these agreements. During this time, the concept of civilizing missions also emerged, bringing educational and agricultural changes directed by the federal government. However, these changes were often driven more by strategy than genuine integration or respect for tribal traditions.

The Dawes Act of 1887 introduced the allotment era, promoting individual land ownership over communal land holding. This assimilation tactic significantly altered tribal land stewardship traditions and reshaped tribal identity.

As the 20th century approached, the complex issue of tribal sovereignty gained more attention, but the scales of justice often tipped away from those whose names were on the original treaties. Demanding the fulfillment of past promises became a necessary step in igniting change and acknowledging historic injustices.

The Boldt Decision

The 1974 Boldt Decision was a pivotal moment in the evolution of Native American rights in the early 20th century. The ruling stemmed from long-standing disputes over treaty rights and resource management, particularly those related to the Stevens treaties of the mid-1850s. These treaties, negotiated by Isaac Stevens, governor of the Washington Territory, protected the fishing rights of Native American tribes, stating that these rights were to be held "in common with all citizens of the Territory."

However, as non-Native settlements grew and commercial fishing activities increased, access to fisheries became increasingly skewed, impacting the economic and cultural foundation of tribal communities. State regulations and licensing requirements imposed on tribes began to restrict traditional practices that had endured for centuries, leading to inevitable conflict and the need for legal intervention.

U.S. District Court Judge George Hugo Boldt made his historic decision in the early 1970s, affirming the fishing rights of tribes under the treaties and allocating 50 percent of the annual catch to the tribes. Boldt based his findings on a nuanced understanding of historical treaties as living documents and binding legal promises that required enforcement in the context of modern law and ecological considerations.

The Boldt Decision was met with mixed reactions:

  • Native American communities celebrated the ruling as a victory for justice and an acknowledgment of their enduring sovereignty over their lands and resources.
  • Non-Native commercial and sports fishermen protested, claiming that their livelihoods were undermined by what they perceived as an overcorrection.

The decision had far-reaching implications, guiding subsequent interactions with Native American treaties across the country. Congress and state legislatures reexamined their approach to Native American rights, while various courts found precedent in Boldt's reasoning for expanded interpretations of sovereign rights in other areas.

The Boldt Decision remains a testament to the enduring power of treaties as foundational elements of U.S. law, reaffirming the obligation to respect and observe the nation's hybrid legal heritage, which encompasses community, tradition, and the rule of law.

A portrait of Isaac Stevens, governor of Washington Territory in the mid-1850s, who negotiated treaties with Native American tribes

Indian Citizenship Act of 1924

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 is a significant milestone in the history of Native American civil liberties and American citizenship. Passed during a period of complex socio-political changes, the Act granted U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans born within the United States. Initiated by Representative Homer P. Snyder and signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, this legislation aimed to reconcile the ideals of inclusivity with practical governance.

The Act stemmed from a long-standing debate over the role and rights of Native Americans within the American political system, a discourse marked by discrepancies between legal documents and the realities on the ground. While the Act declared all non-citizen Indians as U.S. citizens, it also maintained the existing structure of tribal sovereignty and property rights, preserving tribal entities as distinct political communities with inherent rights to self-governance and land possession.

Various laws and policies preceding the Act had offered citizenship to Native Americans, often in exchange for land concessions or compliance with assimilation policies, such as the Dawes Act of 1887. These precedents demonstrate the conditional nature in which citizenship was often perceived and reconfigured.

Although the Indian Citizenship Act marked a legislative milestone and provided grounds for Native Americans to participate in national elections, it did not eliminate all barriers. Many states maintained legal and administrative obstacles that hindered Native American involvement in the democratic process, which were only addressed through later judicial and legislative actions during the civil rights movements of the mid-20th century.

The Act represents an important episode in the unfolding story of Native American legal history, reflecting an evolving recognition by U.S. lawmakers of Native Americans' inherent right to American identity while acknowledging their sovereign status. Despite its limitations, such as its failure to immediately dismantle widespread practices of discrimination, the Act contributed to the fulfillment of promises made in numerous treaties and agreements.

The Indian Citizenship Act was not merely a policy revision but an attempt to address historical oversights and move towards extending the Constitution's protections to all individuals residing within the United States. It highlighted an emerging legal doctrine that no portion of the U.S. population should remain excluded from the Constitution's protection, aligning with the founding principles of the nation.

In the broader context of native rights legislation, the Indian Citizenship Act represents one step in the U.S.'s ongoing efforts to establish a more equitable governance model, a journey that continues to this day as we strive for equal constitutional protection for all sovereigns within the nation's diverse landscape.

President Calvin Coolidge signs the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, granting U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans born within the United States

Constitutional Challenges and Native Rights

Native American rights and U.S. legislative structures have been shaped by profound constitutional challenges that have often reconfigured the boundaries between native tribes and the federal government. Pivotal court rulings and legislative acts have played a significant role in these ongoing constitutional dialogues, deeply influencing the history of Native American jurisprudence.

The 1832 case of Worcester v. Georgia is a foundational example of this. Chief Justice John Marshall's ruling recognized Native American nations as distinct, sovereign entities over which state laws had no force. This decision established an important legal precedent for tribal sovereignty against overly ambitious state encroachments. However, it did not fully curtail the realities of aggressive territorial and cultural infringements that continued.

In the 20th century, the role of the judiciary and Congress in defining Native American rights was continually tested:

  • The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, rejected previous assimilation policies, such as the Dawes Act, and sought to renew Indian culture and reestablish a self-governing framework. This legislative piece sparked a renaissance of native governance structures but did not erase the lingering effects of previous disenfranchisement.
  • The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 was another significant development in Native American law. Echoing the protections offered by the U.S. Bill of Rights, this act applied similar safeguards against potential governmental overreaches within tribes, proclaiming important civil rights protections tailored to fit within tribal governance structures.

The continuity and significance of treaty promises are evident even in recent judicial assessments. For example, in the 1980 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the court ruled in favor of the Sioux, acknowledging that the illegal seizure of their lands under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 could only be rectified by appropriate financial compensation.

These landmark enactments and verdicts demonstrate that the struggle over Native American jurisprudence has not only redefined tribal fates but also forms a significant part of the broader narrative of American constitutional and federal complexity. Each piece represents evolving administrative adaptations and reinforces the sovereign rights deservingly attributed to Native nations.

These episodes have universal implications, reshaping common constitutional narratives to acknowledge Native American tribes not as relics of the past but as resilient sovereigns contributing to the broader landscape of U.S. jurisprudence. They trace not only legislative footsteps but also establish narrative paths that reaffirm the inherent sovereign rights aligned with the constitutional principles held dear by all who value litigation and legislation in the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court building, where pivotal court rulings have shaped Native American rights and jurisprudence

Modern Implications of Historical Treaties

The enduring influence of historical treaties, many of which were negotiated by figures like Isaac Stevens in the 19th century, remains critical to the ongoing legal landscape surrounding Native American rights today. These deeply significant documents are not merely relics of the past but continue to play a prominent role in contemporary law-making and cultural identity, shaping and driven by the principles established over a century ago.

Recent legal cases underscore the lasting impact of these historical promises. For example, a series of court decisions in the 21st century have fortified tribal fishing rights against governmental interference or neglect, drawing upon the ramifications of the Stevens treaties. These modern reaffirmations allude to fundamental themes woven into early treaties, particularly the maintenance of lifeways tied intrinsically to natural resources that tribes had historically managed and relied upon.

The 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Washington State Dept. of Licensing vs. Cougar Den, Inc. exemplifies the enduring power of these treaties. The case, which centered on a challenge over fuel taxation within reservation boundaries, invoked the Yakama Nation's rights under the Stevens treaties of 1855, which safeguarded travel and trade routes, including modern economic activities like fuel transportation. The Supreme Court upheld the importance of respecting enforceable and viable treaty rights, recognizing that state controls over tribal economies should heed the promises made in these historical agreements.1

Moreover, these treaties have also served as foundations in disputes related to cultural resilience and land reverence. Cases often make headlines, illustrating the ongoing contentions between Native nations and contemporary developers or governmental bodies seeking to utilize or rezone lands sacred to or traditionally used by tribal ancestors, sometimes in conflict with treaty specifics.

For instance, in Minnesota, Ojibwe tribes have strongly opposed pipeline construction through tribal lands, continuing protests rooted in the 1851 "Old Crossing" Treaty, which affirmed land ownership and protection rights for indigenous communities.2 Although this dispute unfolds against a modern industrial backdrop, it is firmly tethered to treaty aspects advocating for the integrity and protection of Native lands from exploitation.

The prevailing influence of these historical documents as pillars of current litigation arenas not only revisits foundational principles but also reaffirms the nation's commitment to upholding treaty obligations within the broader context of contemporary legal frameworks. Understanding and actualizing these ancient contracts in today's legal landscape represents not just an adherence to the past but also a complex interplay between distinctive sovereignty and universal constitutional mandates.

The enduring power of historical treaties in shaping modern legal interpretations underscores a fundamental truth: these documents, crafted alongside the revered U.S. Constitution, continue to play a vital role in guiding judicial decisions and legislative actions that affect Native American communities and the broader tapestry of American law.

Ojibwe protesters hold signs opposing pipeline construction through tribal lands, invoking rights from historical treaties
  1. Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc., 139 S. Ct. 1000 (2019)
  2. LaDuke W. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe Legally Recognized the Rights of Wild Rice. Here's Why. Yes! Magazine. October 11, 2018.