American Indians & the Constitution

2004 Fall Quarter
The Evergreen State College


The roots of American Indian Law, which today governs relations among the federal government, the states and the Indian tribes, predate the United States Constitution.  It is an area of law that is uniquely complex, due in large part to the ambivalence, vacillation and racism that all three branches of  government have demonstrated toward Native Americans.

The treaty-making era that began prior to the Revolutionary War ended abruptly in 1830 with Andrew Johnson's policy of "removal." Backed by Congress and the Supreme Court, the president initiated a 60-year drive to herd hundreds of Indian tribes onto reservations in the West.  Just as abruptly, the Congress in 1887 decided that it was time for Indians to assimilate into white society and authorized the dissolution of tribal governments and the elimination of Indian reservations.  In 1934, after confiscating 90 million acres of Indian land and inflicting incalculable damage on tribal culture, the federal government again reversed course and decided that Indian tribes and tribal governments ought to continue after all. 

In 1953, Congress then terminated some Indian tribes, discontinued federal trusteeship over Indian lands, and mandated or permitted state jurisdiction over tribes.  That policy ended in 1968 when the Congress ignored the sovereignty of tribes and imposed upon them most of the constitutional mandates of the American Bill of Rights.  A silver lining in that cloud was the federal government's implied recognition of tribal government.  Subsequent federal legislation has given tribes increased autonomy and control over their own affairs.

This program will not provide a comprehensive study of American Indian Law.  We will not, for example, study tribal law.  Rather, we will focus on American constitutional law, particularly the impact of Supreme Court opinions on American Indians, their tribes, and their legal and political status.

Reading for the program will include court opinions, Internet resources, and various books and journal articles that explore the constitutional status of American Indians.  Working in legal teams, students will develop appellate briefs on real cases decided recently by the federal courts and will present oral arguments before the “Evergreen Supreme Court."  Students will also rotate as justices to read their peers’ appellate briefs, hear arguments and render decisions.

Credit awarded in constitutional law, Native American Studies, critical legal reasoning, legal research and writing, and oral advocacy. 

Total: 16 quarter hours

Program is preparatory for careers and future study in social science, constitutional law, education, public policy, political theory, history, and political science.


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