Present Status of Indian Treaties.

Today, the subject of In- dian treaties is a closed account in the constitutional law ledger. By a rider inserted in the Indian Appropriation Act of March 3, 1871, it was provided “That hereafter no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty: Provided, further, that nothing herein contained shall be construed to invalidate or impair the obligation of any treaty heretofore lawfully made and ratified with any such Indian nation or tribe.”432 Subsequently, the power of Congress to withdraw or modify tribal rights previously granted by treaty has been invariably upheld.433 Statutes modifying rights of members in tribal lands,434 granting a right of way for a railroad through lands ceded by treaty to an Indian tribe,435 or extending the application of revenue laws respecting liquor and tobacco over Indian territories, despite an earlier treaty exemption,436 have been sustained.

When, on the other hand, definite property rights have been conferred upon individual Native Americans, whether by treaty or under an act of Congress, they are protected by the Constitution to the same extent and in the same way as the private rights of other residents or citizens of the United States. Hence, the Court held that certain Indian allottees, under an agreement according to which, in part consideration of their relinquishment of all their claim to tribal property, they were to receive in severalty allotments of lands that were to be nontaxable for a specified period, acquired vested rights of exemption from state taxation that were protected by the Fifth Amendment against abrogation by Congress.437

A regular staple of each Term’s docket of the Court is one or two cases calling for an interpretation of the rights of Native Americans under some treaty arrangement vis-a-vis the Federal Government or the states. Thus, though no treaties have been negotiated for decades and none presumably ever will again, litigation concerning old treaties seemingly will go on.


16 Stat. 566; Rev. Stat. § 2079, now contained in 25 U.S.C. § 71. back
Ward v. Race Horse, 163 U.S. 504 (1896). back
Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, 187 U.S. 553 (1903). back
Cherokee Nation v. Southern Kansas Ry., 135 U.S. 641 (1890). back
The Cherokee Tobacco, 78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 616, 621 (1871). back
Choate v. Trapp, 224 U.S. 665, 677–78 (1912); Jones v. Meehan, 175 U.S. 1 (1899). See also Hodel v. Irving, 481 U.S. 704 (1987) (section of law providing for escheat to tribe of fractionated interests in land representing less than 2% of a tract’s total acreage violates Fifth Amendment’s taking clause by completely abrogating rights of intestacy and devise). back