American Indians and the United States Constitution

by Robert J. Miller, Professor, Lewis & Clark Law School, Portland, Oregon

Excerpt from the article:

The United States Constitution provides that “Congress shall have Power . . . To regulate Commerce . . . with the Indian Tribes.” It is no surprise that American Indian tribes are mentioned in our Constitution. Indian tribes have always played a major part in the non-Indian exploration and settlement of this country. When Christopher Columbus thought he had discovered the “New World” in 1492, it is estimated that 10-30 million native people lived in North America, that is, present day Mexico, United States, and Canada. These millions of people lived under governments of varying sophistication and complexity. These native governments were viable and fully operational political bodies which controlled their citizens and their territories and were an important factor in the development of the United States government we live under today.

The European countries that colonized North America dealt with tribal governments as sovereign governments, that is, as governments that had independent and supreme authority over their citizens and territories. Especially in the area of the present day United States, the European powers interacted with American Indian tribal governments through official diplomatic means. England, France, Spain, and other European countries negotiated with Indian tribes through official government to government council sessions and by entering treaties which recognized tribal governmental control over their territories. The European countries had a selfish motive perhaps for dealing with American tribes in this fashion. Europeans wanted to legitimize the transactions they made to purchase tribal lands. They wanted to make the transactions look official and legal by buying Indian lands through governmental treaties so that other European countries could not contest or object to these land sales.

Download the entire article: American Indians and the United States Constitution (pdf)

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