Wondering If You're An "Indian"? Ask The Ninth Circuit

                                                                            

 (Billy Mills; Sitting Bear

Articles on this site have previously commented on the troubling fact that race continues to be an actively-considered element in both substantive and jurisdictional issues of law affecting Native Americans. The recent 9th Circuit case of United States v. Cruz demonstrates that the phenomenon of “race laws” continues to haunt the national landscape.

The Cruz case involves the analysis of whether a criminal defendant could be tried by a federal court under the laws of the United States. The federal government contended that Mr. Cruz is an “Indian” and committed an assault on Tribal land, thereby subjecting him to federal jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(6). Mr. Cruz appealed, alleging that he is not an “Indian” and therefore not subject to federal jurisdiction under the statute. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal offered the following preface to its analysis:

“At first glance, there appears to be something odd about a court of law in a diverse nation such as ours deciding whether a specific individual is or is not “an Indian.” Yet, given the long and complex relationship between the government of the United States and the sovereign tribal nations within its borders, the criminal jurisdiction of the federal government often turns on precisely this question — whether a particular individual “counts” as an Indian — and it is this question that we address once again today.”

The Court then plunged into an analysis of Mr. Cruz’s racial heritage, determining that

“His father is Hispanic and his mother is 29/64 Blackfeet Indian and 32/64 Blood Indian. The Blackfeet are a federally recognized tribe based in northern Montana; the Blood Indians are a Canadian tribe. Given his parents’ heritage, Cruz is 29/128 Blackfeet Indian and 32/128 Blood Indian.”

The Court ultimately found that the evidence in the case “does not demonstrate that Cruz is an Indian”, and remanded the matter back to the lower court with directions to acquit Mr. Cruz of the federal charges.

The Cruz case is merely the latest in a long series of cases where judges have attempted to determine who is and is not Native American through subjective racial analysis. Leaving aside the glaring issue of why race is a jurisdictional factor in the first place, courts have also failed to create any uniform standard for this tortured arithmetic. In Sully v. United States, 195 F. 113 (8th Cir.1912). 1/8 “Indian” blood was held sufficient to be Indian; in Vezina v. United States, 245 F. 411 (8th Cir.1917), women 1/4 to 3/8 Chippewa were held to be Indian; in Makah Indian Tribe v. Clallam County, 73 Wash.2d 677, 440 P.2d 442 (1968), 1/4 Makah blood sufficient to satisfy the “Indian blood requirement”, in Goforth v. State, 644 P.2d 114, 116 (Okla.Crim.App.1982), the requirement of Indian blood was satisfied by testimony that a person was slightly less than one-quarter Cherokee; and in St. Cloud v. United States, 702 F.Supp. 1456, 1460 (D.S.D.1988), 15/32 of Yankton Sioux blood was held sufficient to establish one as an “Indian”.

Conducting mathematical calculations on a human being’s racial ancestry for the purpose of deciding which laws apply to that person harkens back to the darkest days of American jurisprudence. For those who thought America had moved beyond Plessy v. Ferguson, when the Supreme Court decided that a person who was “7/8ths White” could be consigned to both a separate train car and a separate legal standard, it is clear that much work still remains to be done. It has become typical for courts to “punt” the obvious problems with race laws involving Native Americans by saying “it’s Congress’ responsibility, not the courts.” This justification for abdicating judicial responsibility is not only legally fallacious, it directly contradicts the clear legal precedent of cases such as Brown v. Board of Education where legal policies based on race were declared inherently unconstitutional. Courts clearly have the legal authority to put an end to race-based laws, all they need is the courage.

A far better way for Tribal/federal jurisdiction questions to be analyzed is based on treaty status, with Tribal members being subject to either Tribal or federal jurisdiction based on agreements between their Tribe and the US government.  These are the same principles used when citizens of Canada, Mexico, or other sovereigns  are charged with crimes within the United States, and the procedures for determining jurisdiction are well established. Such a policy would properly acknowledge the sovereign status of Tribes, and eliminate the embarrassing and intellectually-unsupportable notion that a person’s race should determine their legal status in America.
 

Why Are Tribal Courts The Last Race-Based Jurisdiction In The United States?

If an American enters the sovereign territory of Canada or Mexico and commits murder, he or she can expect to face the full weight of that nation's laws and be punished through that nation's court system.  But if a non-Native American enters the sovereign territory of a Tribe and murders a Tribal member, what punishment can that person expect to receive from the Tribe's Court and legal system?

 

None whatsoever.

 

Due to a unique set of federal legal decisions and policies, Tribal Courts have no jurisdiction to impose criminal penalties against "non-Indians", even when the crimes are committed on Tribal land or against Tribal members.  Crimes committed by "non-Indians" on Tribal land are subject to state and/or federal jurisdiction and the perpetrators face punishment under state and/or federal law, but the affected Tribe has no legal standing to pursue justice for wrongs committed against its own people.

In no other area of American jurisprudence is race - in this case "Indian" or "non-Indian" - a factor in determining whether a court has jurisdiction over a criminal defendant.  Decades ago the Civil Rights Movement helped sweep away race-based segregation and "Jim Crow" laws, but seemingly had no impact on the use of race as a jurisdictional consideration in the realm of Tribal Courts.  Indeed, the seminal Supreme Court opinion that confirmed the restrictions on Tribal Court jurisdiction was issued in 1978, more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act liberated the rest of America's population from racial discrimination in its governmental institutions.  In addition to the basic question of why race is a factor in Tribal justice, numerous other issues arise in this paradigm: Who exactly is a "non-Indian"?  Is a person with a drop of Native blood in the family lineage considered an "Indian" under this system?  What "race authority" should have the final word on determining such questions?

The US Supreme Court's opinion in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe provides startling insight into the policies and mind-set that resulted in the limited jurisdiction of Tribal Courts.  It is striking that nearly all of the legal authority on which the court relied was from the 19th Century, when the attitudes of the American government toward Native Americans were anything but enlightened.  Citing In re Mayfield, 141 U.S. 107, 115 -116 (1891), the Oliphant Court noted that the policy of Congress had been to allow the inhabitants of Indian country "such power of self-government as was thought to be consistent with the safety of the white population with which they may have come in contact, and to encourage them as far as possible in raising themselves to our standard of civilization."  The Supreme Court's decision in 1978 also cited the view Congress took toward the state of Tribal Courts in 1834: "With the exception of two or three tribes, who have within a few years past attempted to establish some few laws and regulations among themselves, the Indian tribes are without laws, and the chiefs without much authority to exercise any restraint." H. R. Rep. No. 474, 23d Cong., 1st Sess., 91 (1834).   The idea that such antiquated and ill-informed perspectives could still be the basis for American legal policy in the 21st Century is difficult to fathom, and is a sad reflection of the persistent racial discrimination that lurks even in the land that produced the Bill of Rights.

What is to be done to correct this glaring discrepancy?  Reading between the lines in the Oliphant decision, it seems that the Supreme Court of the time felt that the restrictions on Tribal Court jurisdiction were no longer appropriate, but that under the doctrine of separation of powers an act of Congress was required to rectify the situation.  Thirty years later, Congress has obviously failed to take the hint.  In all likelihood, removing race from jurisdictional considerations for Tribal Courts will require concerted pressure and lobbying of Congress by Tribes all across the country, acting in a coordinated and united front to claim this basic element of sovereignty.