Fair or racist, here are six important Indian court cases.

Racist or Fair? You Decide on 6 Important Indian Court Cases

Christina Rose

Of the “Eight Fascinating Court Decisions Affecting Indians and Tribes,” presented in New London, Connecticut on May 22, some of the resulting laws seem surprisingly fair while others reek of racism.

Stephen L. Pevar, American Civil Liberties attorney since 1976, presented cases that reflect the origins of laws that affect Natives today.

Pevar said the Supreme Court accepts fewer than 70 cases out of 6,000 a year. So far, the Supreme Court has taken 200 cases regarding Indians. “What I have done is select eight cases. Indians have won some and lost others,” Pevar said.

Here are six of the eight, some of which seem surprisingly fair and others that reek of racism.

Johnson v. McIntosh (1823)

Facts: Johnson bought land from the Illinois tribe in 1773, before the United States became an independent nation.  Decades later and after the U.S. had become independent, another man, McIntosh, bought the exact same land from the U.S. government.

Who owned the land? McIntosh according to the Supreme Court, which based its decision on the principal of International Law, “to the victor belongs the spoils.”

Pevar explained that the Europeans had established the doctrine of discovery, which gave title to those who “discovered” it. The only concession the court made for the tribes was to be certain they had been adequately compensated. (Hold your breath, folks, here it comes.)

The Supreme Court then said that the rulers of the old world “made ample compensation to the inhabitant of the new, by bestowing upon them civilization and Christianity.”

Pevar called the decision heartbreaking, racist, immoral, and “One of the most reviled decisions in all of Indian Law.” Pevar cited that the ruling was included in the book, In the Courts of the Conqueror, the Ten Worst Indian Law Cases by Walter Echo Hawk.


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Catfish101's picture
Submitted by Catfish101 on
The real racist are the ones that want to keep this distinction, indian vs white. Were all are aware of how history was unfair. Move on.

Steve Russell
Steve Russell
Submitted by Steve Russell on
Mr. Fish, by referring to this as "history," you show you don't get out a lot. There has been an incredible controversy over the last year about the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and one of the taproots of that controversy was in the Oliphant case, which also, incidentally, happened within my life in politics. Your view of "history" does not compute. In several states, candidates are running for the US Senate who want the government to interfere with birth control. The Supreme Court legalized birth control in 1965 and abortion in 1973, but the fight goes on. Just last year, the SCOTUS gutted the Voting Rights Act and the Indian Child Welfare Act. Those,too, were "history." Maybe Lone Wolf would be mere "history" if the government were done abrogating treaties. I see no evidence that is the case.