Native American Rights

Cherokee Trail of Tears by Robert Lindneux (1942) depicts the forced deportation of the Cherokees in 1838 to present-day Oklahoma.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
CUNY School of Law alumna Tonya Gonnella Frichner ('87) is the president and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance.

[Indian] tribes possess a nationhood status and retain inherent powers of self-government. Chief Justice John Marshall, 1832

From 1778 to 1871, the issue of Native sovereignty was largely defined by treaties, which compelled Indian tribes to relinquish millions of acres of their homelands to the United States and offered little in return. The first Supreme Court decision regarding Native sovereignty, Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), ruled that Indian tribes required the federal government to approve any land sales to private parties.

When the Indian Removal Act (1830) threatened the existence of southeastern tribes, Cherokee leaders petitioned the Supreme Court to compel the federal government and the states to honor the treaties that had guaranteed the Cherokee Nation the right to “lands that they did not voluntarily cede to the United States.” Georgia had long desired Cherokee land for settlement by whites, and in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Chief Justice Marshall wrote that the federal government alone had the authority to sign treaties with or issue laws affecting Indian nations. Yet the Cherokee victory in this case proved hollow as President Andrew Jackson reputedly said: “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Shortly thereafter the federal government forcibly removed the Cherokees from the southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma in contradiction of the Supreme Court ruling in what became known as the Trail of Tears (1838), along which hundreds died.

A desire to honor those Native Americans who served in World War I led Congress to pass the Snyder Act (1924), which granted citizenship to indigenous people born within the territorial limits of the United States. In the late 20th century, Indian gaming became a powerful economic force and the Court, in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians (1987), overturned existing laws prohibiting gambling on Indian reservations. Congress then passed the Indian Gambling and Regulatory Act (1988), which expanded gambling on reservations, but enabled the states to regulate and issue licenses.

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