American Indian activism after 1945 was as much a part of the larger, global decolonization movement rooted in centuries of imperialism as it was a direct response to the ethos of civic nationalism and integration that had gained momentum in the United States following World War II. This ethos manifested itself in the disastrous federal policies of termination and relocation, which sought to end federal services to recognized Indian tribes and encourage Native people to leave reservations for cities. In response, tribal leaders from throughout Indian Country formed the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 1944 to litigate and lobby for the collective well-being of Native peoples. The NCAI was the first intertribal organization to embrace the concepts of sovereignty, treaty rights, and cultural preservation—principles that continue to guide Native activists today. As American Indian activism grew increasingly militant in the late 1960s and 1970s, civil disobedience, demonstrations, and takeovers became the preferred tactics of “Red Power” organizations such as the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), the Indians of All Tribes, and the American Indian Movement (AIM). At the same time, others established more focused efforts that employed less confrontational methods. For example, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) served as a legal apparatus that represented Native nations, using the courts to protect treaty rights and expand sovereignty; the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) sought to secure greater returns on the mineral wealth found on tribal lands; and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) brought Native educators together to work for greater self-determination and culturally rooted curricula in Indian schools. While the more militant of these organizations and efforts have withered, those that have exploited established channels have grown and flourished. Such efforts will no doubt continue into the unforeseeable future so long as the state of Native nations remains uncertain.
N. Bruce Duthu
United States law recognizes American Indian tribes as distinct political bodies with powers of self-government. Their status as sovereign entities predates the formation of the United States and they are enumerated in the U.S. Constitution as among the subjects (along with foreign nations and the several states) with whom Congress may engage in formal relations. And yet, despite this long-standing recognition, federal Indian law remains curiously ambivalent, even conflicted, about the legal and political status of Indian tribes within the U.S. constitutional structure. On the one hand, tribes are recognized as sovereign bodies with powers of self-government within their lands. On the other, long-standing precedents of the Supreme Court maintain that Congress possesses plenary power over Indian tribes, with authority to modify or even eliminate their powers of self-government. These two propositions are in tension with one another and are at the root of the challenges faced by political leaders and academics alike in trying to understand and accommodate the tribal rights to self-government. The body of laws that make up the field of federal Indian law include select provisions of the U.S. Constitution (notably the so-called Indian Commerce Clause), treaties between the United States and various Indian tribes, congressional statutes, executive orders, regulations, and a complex and rich body of court decisions dating back to the nation’s formative years. The noted legal scholar Felix Cohen brought much-needed coherence and order to this legal landscape in the 1940s when he led a team of scholars within the Office of the Solicitor in the Department of the Interior to produce a handbook on federal Indian law. The revised edition of Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law is still regarded as the seminal treatise in the field. Critically, however, this rich body of law only hints at the real story in federal Indian law. The laws themselves serve as historical and moral markers in the ongoing clash between indigenous and nonindigenous societies and cultures still seeking to establish systems of peaceful coexistence in shared territories. It is a story about the limits of legal pluralism and the willingness of a dominant society and nation to acknowledge and honor its promises to the first inhabitants and first sovereigns.
David A. Nichols
From 1783 to 1830, American Indian policy reflected the new American nation-state’s desire to establish its own legitimacy and authority, by controlling Native American peoples and establishing orderly and prosperous white settlements in the continental interior. The Federalists focused on securing against Native American claims and attacks several protected enclaves of white settlement (Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee), established—often violently—during the Revolutionary War. They used treaties to draw a legal boundary between these enclaves and Indian communities, and annuities and military force to keep Indians on their side of the line. The Jeffersonian Republicans adopted a more expansive plan of development, coupled with the promotion of Native American dependency. Treaty commissioners persuaded chiefs to cede road easements and riverfront acreage that the government used to link and develop dispersed white settlements. Meanwhile, the War Department built trading factories whose cheap merchandise would lure Indians into commercial dependency, and agents offered Indian families agricultural equipment and training, hoping that Native American farmers would no longer need “extensive forests” to support themselves. These pressures helped engender nativist movements in the Old Northwest and southeast, and Indian men from both regions fought the United States in the War of 1812, reinforcing frontier settlers’ view that Indians were a security threat. After this war’s end, the United States adopted a strategy of containment, pressuring Indian leaders to cede most of their peoples’ lands, confining Indians to enclaves, financing vocational schooling for Indian children, and encouraging Native peoples voluntarily to move west of the Mississippi. This policy, however, proved too respectful of Indian autonomy for the frontier settlers and politicians steadily gaining influence in the national government. After these settlers elected one of their own, Andrew Jackson, to the presidency, American Indian policy would enter a much more coercive and violent phase, as white Americans redefined the nation-state as a domain of white supremacy ethnically cleansed of indigenous peoples.