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Working Effectively with Tribal Governments

Federal Indian Law and Policy

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Jurisdiction: Civil and Criminal

Only entities having sovereign powers can exercise jurisdiction. Most introductions to Indian sovereignty, and the relationship between Indians and non-Indians, begin with a discussion of three Supreme Court cases from the early 1800s, known as the "Marshall trilogy":

  • Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823)
  • Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. 1 (1831)
  • Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832)

Rulings from these cases recognized Indian sovereignty and set the stage for the federal Indian trust responsibility and the interplay of federal-tribal jurisdiction. These cases held that tribes had placed themselves under the protection of the United States, and established that tribes could not sign treaties with states, nor transfer lands to states or other non-federal entities without federal permission.



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