Judging ‘Indian Character’ in Nebraska v. Parker

Matthew H. Birkhold

[For many, this Holiday Season is an occasion to reevaluate the Pilgrim story and celebrate our new understanding of the historical relationship between Europeans and Native Americans. This year, let’s continue to challenge our thinking, even after the holiday.]

When the English arrived in the “New World” in the seventeenth century, they viewed the land as empty, unused, and unclaimed – a “vacuum domicilium” that legally justified their usurpation of the land. Nearly four hundred years later, we’ve come to appreciate that Native Americans stood in various agricultural, economic, spiritual, and geopolitical relationships with the land. The English just couldn’t perceive these connections and uses. The Supreme Court’s recent decision to hear Nebraska v. Parker offers an opportunity for the American justice system to demonstrate that it has since developed a more enlightened and nuanced jurisprudence, one that understands more about Native Americans than the early colonists did.

At issue in Nebraska v. Parker are the boundaries of the Omaha Indian Reservation. Specifically, the court will determine whether an 1882 Act of Congress “diminished” the size of the reservation. The Omaha Tribe of Nebraska argues that businesses in the Village of Pender are located on the reservation and are thus subject to the tribe’s jurisdiction and tax scheme. The retailers claim they are not located on the federally recognized Indian reservation due to the 1882 diminishment.

The courts developed the “diminishment doctrine” to determine whether reservations lost portions of their territory through various congressional acts. The doctrine requires courts to examine several factors, for instance, whether a congressional statement explicitly indicates an intent to change a reservation’s boundaries. The doctrine also requires courts to consider whether de facto diminishment has occurred. As the Supreme Court stated in Solem v. Bartlett (1984): “who actually moved into an opened reservation is also relevant to deciding whether [an] act diminished a reservation. Where non-Indian settlers flooded into the opened portion of a reservation and the area has long since lost its Indian character, we have acknowledged that de facto, if not de jure, diminishment may have occurred.” Because the Eighth Circuit failed to consider this factor in its analysis of Nebraska v. Parker, the Supreme Court has decided to hear the case. Accordingly, to determine whether the Omaha Tribe lost parts of its reservation, the Supreme Court in Nebraska v. Parker will judge the “Indian character” of the land. Sound familiar?

To prove that the disputed land is no longer part of the reservation, the retailers of the Village of Pender argue that the Omaha Tribe does not have an office in the disputed territory. They further contend that the tribe does not operate industry or business on the land, provide social services in the area, or even claim mineral rights to the land. In contrast, the Village of Pender explains that for 130 years the non-Indians in the disputed territory have “chosen to reside in the Pender, Nebraska area and build homes, schools, and churches, open businesses and raise families.” In other words: they are making use of the land; the Omaha Tribe is not. Moreover, non-Indians now comprise 98% of the population. The demographic data and lack of a perceived Omaha presence, the argument goes, indicates the land does not have an “Indian character.” In its brief to the Supreme Court the Village of Pender even goes so far as to claim that the disputed area has no history of Indian character.

Meanwhile, the Omaha Tribal Court concurred that few Omaha Indians made the disputed portion of the Omaha Indian Reservation a home. Instead, the court noted, they used the land as a hunting ground, and – notably – as a buffer and security zone between them and the encroaching non-Indians. Much like the English settlers of the seventeenth century, the retailers of the Village of Pender simply cannot see this alternative use of the land. Although they describe it in different words, they rely on an argument that echoes the “vacuum domicilium” justification made centuries ago.

The Supreme Court has the chance to demonstrate that American justice has evolved beyond its culturally myopic seventeenth-century roots. No court has yet determined the “Indian character” of the land at issue in Nebraska v. Parker. But by agreeing with the lower courts, the Supreme Court will not only decide that the reservation has not been diminished, it will recognize land uses beyond those practices perceived as worthwhile by non-Indians.

Yet, even if the Supreme Court delivers a win to the Omaha Tribe, it has emphasized the importance of the “Indian character” test. It has reaffirmed that a tribe can lose its authority and its territory if lands are perceived – by non-Indians – to have lost their “Indian character.” In the past, courts have determined diminishment on precisely this basis. In Brendale v. Yakima Indian Nation (1989), the court found that the tribe lost sovereignty over its reservation because the territory was used for industrial and commercial purposes rather than for expected tribal uses, like hunting and gathering. Under this jurisprudence, tribes may lose their authority due to an influx of non-Indians moving into the territory, or because their lands are used in a manner that appears to conflict with “traditional” uses. Judging diminishment according to “Indian character” risks freezing Native Americans and indigenous culture in time, forcing Indians to correspond to the nineteenth-century imagination. In this regard, there is some virtue in the argument put forward by the retailers in Pender: they characterize the land as lacking an “Indian character” because there is no Native-run industry in the area. Nevertheless, their argument overlooks Indian uses beyond their narrow perspective.

These cases highlight the unsettling indeterminacy of the concept of “Indian character.” And they challenge who should determine “Indian character” and how. Fortunately, when the Supreme Court hears Nebraska v. Parker, it will have the opportunity to acknowledge the perspective of the Omaha Tribe, even if it has been overlooked by the non-Indian settlers in the Village of Pender. The Court has the chance to demonstrate the importance of embracing a wider perspective that includes long-marginalized indigenous voices. But as the Court determines what constitutes “Indian character,” we should continue to question the validity of such culturally fraught tests. Indeed, to prove that it has developed a more enlightened jurisprudence, the Supreme Court should acknowledge its own misplaced reliance on the importance of “Indian character” when it decides Nebraska v. Parker.

Mathew Birkhold’s work on Native Americans and the law has appeared in several academic and popular journals, including Bloomberg View and the Yale International Law Journal. He holds a JD from Columbia and is a member of the Native American Bar Association. In December he will defend his PhD at Princeton and in January will begin work as an attorney-adviser with the US Department of State.

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