The latest foray by federal courts into the anachronistic (and often bizarre) legal analysis of who qualifies as an “Indian” comes from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in its decision in the case of United States v. Maggi. The bottom line: unless you are a member of a federally-recognized Tribe, you are not an “Indian” under federal law.
As with most of the cases that analyze the issue of who is an “Indian”, the Maggi case arises from a dispute over whether a federal court or Tribal court has jurisdiction over a person accused of committing a crime on Tribal lands. Under current federal law, Tribal courts can only hold jurisdiction over people who qualify as “Indian”. Tribes are not allowed to exercise jurisdiction over people who are not considered “Indian” by the federal government -- making Tribal courts the last legal venue in the US where race determines access to justice.
In determining that the defendants in the Maggi case were not “Indian” and therefore not subject to Tribal court jurisdiction despite committing crimes on Tribal land, the 9th Circuit quoted from LaPier v. McCormick, 986 F.2d 303 (9th Cir. 1993):
“Is the Indian group with which (a person) claims affiliation a federally recognized Indian tribe? If the answer is no, the inquiry ends. A defendant whose only claim of membership or affiliation is with an Indian group that is not a federally acknowledged Indian tribe cannot be an Indian for criminal jurisdiction purposes.”
The extreme difficulty for unrecognized Tribes to obtain federal recognition is well known – it can take decades just to receive a “no” from the federal government. The Maggi decision reinforces the courts’ brutal concept that unless you’re a member of a federally recognized Tribe, not only are you unable to obtain sovereign rights through your Tribe – you’re not even considered an “Indian”.