Federal Indian law, and the way it applies in Alaska, may be best understood by viewing the long history of events and policies affecting Indigenous people in this country. This Unit covers the very beginning of federal Indian law through the purchase of Alaska and early years. The main concepts students are expected to learn from this Unit are:

  • The root of federal Indian law comes from the American interpretation of the European idea of the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery recognized that aboriginal inhabitants of the New World were people who had claims to land and resources, and each discovering nation had the authority to determine how it would deal with those claims. Aboriginal Title is the legal recognition that indigenous people were not a party to the Rule of Discovery.
  • Treaties are contracts between nations and were the most common way the British, then the U.S. government recognized and settled aboriginal claims with tribes in the Lower 48. Treaty-making with Indian tribes ended shortly after Alaska was purchased, and therefore there are no treaties with tribes in Alaska.
  • “Indian country” is the territorial area over which an Indian tribe makes and enforces its laws, and was first described in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
  • The United States Constitution was interpreted by the United States Supreme Court to give plenary power over Indian tribes to the United States Congress. Congress can enhance, limit, modify, or eliminate rights and powers that tribes have
  • The three primary United States Supreme Court Cases that form the basis of federal Indian law in the United States are referred to as the ‘Marshall trilogy.’ The three cases are Johnson v. M’Intosh, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, and Worcester v. Georgia. The cases determined that tribes have aboriginal claims to land and resources that only the United States government can settle; that tribes are sovereign nations whose authority is inherent; and, that the federal government has a trust responsibility to protect Indian lands and resources, and to provide essential services to Indian people
  • During the late 1800s the United States government attempted to assimilate Indian people into mainstream America through boarding schools where the students were typically punished for speaking their languages and observing cultural practices. Assimilation was also attempted through the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, which resulted in the loss of 90 million acres of Indian land.
  • In 1867 the United States purchased Alaska from Russia through the Treaty of Cessions.


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