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Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country
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Whose Land Is It?
Chief Justice John Marshall (1755 - 1835)

A short history of Indian civil rights. Click here
Chief justice of the U. S. Supreme Court (1801-1835) and principal architect of American constitutional law. His 34-year tenure on the court helped shape American life and politics and influenced the rights of Indians during the 1820s and '30s. Three important decisions in particular helped define interactions between Indian tribes and U.S. and state governments:

Johnson's and Graham's Lessee v. M'Intosh.
Marshall's 1823 ruling established that Native Americans shared title to their lands with the United States and could not transfer land rights without permission from the government. The United States, moreover, had no legal responsibility to protect Indian land rights, and could dispose of as it saw fit.

Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia.
In 1831, Marshall ruled that the Cherokee nation could not sue the State of Georgia in the U.S. Supreme court, a privilege allowed foreign nations as defined by the U.S. Constitution. Marshall found that the Cherokees' dependency on the United States did not allow them consideration as foreign nations, but his decision did afford them "unique nation" status.

Worcester v. Georgia.
This 1832 case went directly to the right of Indian tribes to manage their own land. The Court ruling denied states' right to control Indian lands, confirming federal authority over Indian affairs.

1870 - 1929
The Outing System: Off-Reservation Education
Near the end of the 19th century the federal government initiated an all-out effort to assimilate Native Americans into the white-dominated society. It was widely held that unless American Indians were weaned away from traditional Native language and religion, they would not survive in mainstream society. Ostensibly for their own survival, Indian children were removed from their families and placed in distant government-run boarding schools, often for many years at a time. Richard H. Pratt was the architect of the so-called "outing system" which removed Indian children from their homes and advocated strict discipline, conformity and severe punishment for speaking in native languages. In 1879, Pratt opened the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, "recruiting" children from reservations as far away as the Dakota territory. Although ineffective and poorly administered, the outing system remained the model for American Indian education well into the twentieth century. In 1926, a comprehensive survey of Indian affairs was undertaken, including a thorough investigation of government-run schools. The so-called Meriam Report advocated a change in policy and by 1929, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began to emphasize community schools on reservations as a model for Indian education.

Constitutional Rights of Indians (Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968)
Also known as the Indian Bill of Rights, this section of the U.S. Code guarantees to residents of reservations many of the same civil rights afforded to U.S. citizens by the Federal Constitution. Adopted by Congress in 1968, the Indian Civil Rights Act ensures that no tribal government may enact or enforce laws that deny, among other rights, free exercise of religion and freedom of speech; freedom from unreasonable search and seizures; a speedy and public trial; and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978
Public Law 95-341 - August 11, 1978 -- 92 Stat. 469 95th Congress * Joint Resolution

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed into law in 1978 as a joint resolution of the 95th Congress. Intended to confirm Native Americans' right to freedom of religion under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, the law, because it contained no provisions, had little strength. Many of the important issues surrounding Native American religious practices were addressed in the courts after 1978, but those rulings were inconsistent, in some cases limiting religious practices. In 1993 Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, requiring proof of compelling governmental interest before imposing restrictions on religious exercise.