By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Congress took it upon itself to protect Indians and act in their best interest. However, these Western ideas about law and justice served as the handmaidens of assimilation and colonial control by disempowering tribal institutions and treating Native people as incompetent in matters of jurisprudence.
The Major Crimes Act
The Major Crimes Act of 1885 defined the circumstances in which federal courts could intervene in crimes committed between Indians within reservation communities. It identified murder as one of those major crimes. But this legislation added to it manslaughter, rape, arson, burglary, and a number of other offenses deemed so serious and consequential as to give federal authorities concurrent jurisdiction.
So was it within the power of Congress to legislate that or not? That was the question at the heart of the United States v. Kagama case.
Learn more about allotment and assimilation.
Kagama and Iyouse
The case focused on murder involving three Klamath men living within the Hoopa Valley Reservation in Northern California. One of them, Kagama, according to the reservation agent’s report, wanted to build a house and inquired about securing legal title to a piece of land.
However, Kagama’s claim to that land was disputed by another Klamath, named Iyouse. In June 1885, Kagama and his son confronted Iyouse and, in front of Iyouse’s wife, Kagama stabbed him to death. The murder became a test case for the constitutionality of the Major Crimes Act, which had passed only a few weeks prior to the murder.
In an irony of all ironies, it was determined that because the murder, which no one disputed, had not taken place within the boundaries of the Hoopa Valley Reservation—the Major Crimes Act had no bearing, anyway. The State of California then declined to prosecute, and Kagama and his son went about their lives as if the murder had never happened. But still, a potent precedent had been set.
Constitutionality of the Major Crimes Act
In a devastating blow to tribal self-government, the Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of the Major Crimes Act. In so doing, it conveyed three critically important ideas. First, the decision perpetuated the illusion that as Native people became surrounded geographically and demographically, their systems of governance and social control were automatically compromised or diminished.
Second, the decision justified the extension of concurrent federal jurisdiction over tribal communities by invoking the language of trusteeship or protection, as if preventing tribes from governing themselves was somehow a duty. In a series of remarkable turns of phrase, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the right of the federal government to interfere with the ability of tribes to be self-governing.
The third critically important idea conveyed by the Courts in the Kagama advanced an expansive definition of federal regulatory power known as plenary power. The doctrine of plenary power held that Congress could legislate in any way that it deemed beneficial to tribes.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Role of Law in Native Americans’ Life
It is thus noted that law played an integral role in the surrounding of Native America through the imposition of foreign ideas and institutions during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Through the passage of the Major Crimes Act, Congress legitimated the extension of federal law into tribal communities—further threatening tribal systems of governance and justice. The Supreme Court invested Congress with potentially unlimited power in the meaning it assigned to the doctrine of plenary power. Whereas it was originally intended to give the federal government primacy in tribal relations, the US Supreme Court now read it to mean that Congress could act unilaterally and, potentially, with abandon.
Learn more about the Native Americans who broke out of the stereotypes.
The Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache People
These were the concerns on the minds of the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache people as well as the United States government began the process of dismantling their lands through allotment during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
The Comanche, Plains Apache, and Kiowa people migrated into the southern Plains from Montana, Wyoming, and the Rocky Mountains in separate waves over several centuries. Organized into small mobile and independent bands, they signed treaties of peace and friendship with the United States during the first few decades of the 19th century.
By the 1860s, beset by war and disease, they faced increasing pressure to cede land. This included the Little Arkansas Treaty of 1865, which involved the cession of millions of acres of land stretching from present-day southern Colorado and eastern New Mexico through much of west Texas. The reservation the Kiowa and Comanche accepted was never established, and two short years later, they returned to meet with a Peace Commission established by Congress to negotiate treaties with the Plains tribes.
Learn more about the Chiricahua Apache struggle.
The Medicine Lodge Treaty
In October 1867, some 5,000 Comanche, Kiowa, and Plains Apache, among others, attended a massive gathering of nations at Medicine Lodge Creek in present-day Kansas. The outcome of this gathering was the Medicine Lodge Treaty. In this treaty, the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache signatories ceded all but 3 million acres of land located in present-day southwestern Oklahoma in return for annuities, schools, churches, assistance becoming ranchers and farmers, and protection from buffalo hunters.
During the next few months and years, the federal government failed to follow through on the promised provisions, and the slaughter of the bison continued. With the bison depleted, the loss of their hunting grounds, and their mobility severely restricted—life became ever more challenging.
Dependency brought even more hardship, including poverty, starvation, and sickness. At the same time, non-Indians flooded into the space defined as Oklahoma Territory after 1890. Demands for allotment grew more adamant, and the movement for statehood gained momentum.
Common Questions about Native Americans and the Federal Power
The Major Crimes Act of 1885 defined the circumstances in which federal courts could intervene in crimes committed between Indians within reservation communities.
The Supreme Court conveyed three critically important ideas. First, the Unites States wouldn’t allow tribes to govern themselves; second, the extension of concurrent federal jurisdiction over tribal communities was justified; and third, Congress could legislate in any way that it deemed beneficial to tribes.
Through the Medicine Lodge Treaty, the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache signatories ceded all but 3 million acres of land located in present-day south-western Oklahoma in return for annuities, schools, churches, assistance becoming ranchers and farmers, and protection from buffalo hunters.