The Ex Parte Crow Dog case, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883, illustrates how federal Indian law works in several ways. The situation in the case is very interesting, and whole books have been written about it. In brief, the case involved a Brule Sioux man named Crow Dog, a traditionalist and a captain of the tribal police force. Crow Dog shot and killed a man called Spotted Tail who was viewed as an accommodator and great peace chief by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Both men were from the same Tribe and the killing took place on reservation land. The Tribe handled the case according to their internal laws, and made Crow Dog pay restitution of $600, 8 horses, and one blanket which was a significant payment in those days, to take care of Spotted Tail’s family. Deciding that punishment inadequate, the Territory of Dakota also heard the case, the first time in the history of the country that an Indian was held on trial for the murder of another Indian. The Dakota Court sentenced Crow Dog to hang for the murder.
The case was appealed to the United State Supreme Court which found that unless Congress authorized it, the government did not have jurisdiction over a crime committed by one Indian on a reservation against another, so Crow Dog was set free. This illustrated the inherent sovereignty that tribes possess, the authority of tribes to govern over anything and in any manner unless Congress expressly limits or prohibits it. It also illustrates the way federal Indian law works in that if Congress is silent or unclear about a matter, the courts may make a decision that is law until Congress says otherwise.
Congress reacted to this ruling by passing the Major Crimes Act in 1885, placing 15 major crimes under federal jurisdiction if committed by one Indian against another on reservation land, Indian country. This illustrates the plenary power of Congress over Indian tribes. Congress would later pass an Act called Public Law 280 (1953) which handed the federal authority over crimes to certain states to enforce in Indian country, including Alaska.
- The Major Crimes Act
- Crow Dog's Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century (Studies in North American Indian History)
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