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Supreme Court of the United States
November 20, 1958, Argued ; January 12, 1959, Decided
[*217] [***252] [**269] MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.
Respondent, who is not an Indian, operates a general store in Arizona on the Navajo Indian Reservation under a license required by federal statute. 1 He brought this [*218] action in the Superior Court of Arizona against petitioners, a Navajo Indian and his wife who live on the Reservation, to collect for goods sold them there on credit. Over petitioners' motion to dismiss on the ground that jurisdiction lay in the tribal court rather than in the state court, judgment was entered in favor of respondent. The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed, holding that since no Act of Congress expressly forbids their doing so Arizona courts are free to exercise jurisdiction over civil suits by non-Indians against Indians though the action arises on an Indian reservation. 83 Ariz. 241, 319 P. 2d 998. Because this was a doubtful determination of the important [****3] question of state power over Indian affairs, we granted certiorari. [***253] 356 U.S. 930.
Originally the Indian tribes were separate nations within what is now the United States. Through conquest and treaties they were induced to give up complete independence and the right to [**270] go to war in exchange for federal protection, aid, and grants of land. When the lands granted lay within States these governments sometimes sought to impose their laws and courts on the Indians. Around 1830 the Georgia Legislature extended its laws to the Cherokee Reservation despite [****4] federal treaties with the Indians which set aside this land for them. 2 The Georgia statutes forbade the Cherokees from enacting laws or holding courts and prohibited outsiders from being on the Reservation except with permission of the State Governor. The constitutionality of these laws was tested in Worcester v. Georgia, 6 Pet. 515, when the State sought to punish [*219] a white man, licensed by the Federal Government to practice as a missionary among the Cherokees, for his refusal to leave the Reservation. Rendering one of his most courageous and eloquent opinions, Chief Justice Marshall held that Georgia's assertion of power was invalid. ] "The Cherokee nation . . . is a distinct community, occupying its own territory . . . in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties, and with the acts of congress. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation, is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States." 6 Pet., at 561.
[****5] Despite bitter criticism and the defiance of Georgia which refused to obey this Court's mandate in Worcester3 the broad principles of that decision came to be accepted as law. 4 [****7] Over the years this Court has modified these principles in cases where essential tribal relations were not involved and where the rights of Indians would not be jeopardized, but the basic policy of Worcester has remained. Thus, ] suits by Indians against outsiders in state courts have been sanctioned. See Felix v. Patrick, 145 U.S. 317, 332; [*220] United States v. Candelaria, 271 U.S. 432. See also Harrison v. Laveen, 67 Ariz. 337, 196 P. 2d 456. And state courts have been allowed to try non-Indians who committed crimes against each other on a reservation. [***254] E. g., New York ex rel. Ray v. Martin, 326 U.S. 496. But if the crime was by or against an Indian, tribal jurisdiction or that expressly conferred on other courts by [***256] Congress has remained exclusive. 5 Donnelly v. United States, 228 U.S. 243, 269-272; [**271] Williams v. United States, 327 U.S. 711. [****6] Essentially, absent governing Acts of Congress, the question has always been whether the state action infringed on the right of reservation Indians to make their own laws and be ruled by them. Cf. Utah & Northern Railway v. Fisher, 116 U.S. 28.
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358 U.S. 217 *; 79 S. Ct. 269 **; 3 L. Ed. 2d 251 ***; 1959 U.S. LEXIS 1656 ****
WILLIAMS ET UX. v. LEE, DOING BUSINESS AS GANADO TRADING POST
Prior History: [****1] CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ARIZONA.
Disposition: 83 Ariz. 241, 319 P. 2d 998, reversed.
Reservation, courts, treaties, tribal
Governments, Native Americans, Authority & Jurisdiction, General Overview, Property Rights