Document Type



Indigenous, Indian, and Aboriginal Law


Equality arguments are used today to attack policies furthering Native rights on many fronts, from tribal jurisdiction over non-Indian abusers to efforts to protect salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest. These attacks have gained strength from a modem movement challenging many claims by disadvantaged groups as unfair special rights. In American Indian law and policy, however, such attacks have a long history, dating almost to the founding of the United States. Tribal removal, confinement on reservations, involuntary allotment and boarding schools, tribal termination-all were justified, in part, as necessary to achieve individual Indian equality. The results of these policies, justified as equalizing the savage, are now recognized as savage themselves, impoverishing Native people and denying them fundamental rights.

Many, including some tribal advocates, respond to equality-based attacks by arguing that sovereignty, cultural difference, or some other value trumps the value of equality in Indian law and policy. This Article, in contrast, reveals the egalitarian roots of demands for tribal rights. It argues that such rights are in fact demands to recognize the equality of tribes as governments, so the proper comparison is to rights of other sovereign groups. This governmental equality yardstick, moreover, has an even older historical pedigree and has repeatedly triumphed when U.S. policy bent toward justice.

The governmental rubric does not lead to an easy metric for equality claims-tribal nations and their people are far too entwined with non-Native governments and communities for that. Additional principles, including individual equality, the history and context of modem disputes, and the impact of particular measures on the most vulnerable, are relevant as well. To show how these principles apply, the Article concludes by examining modem conflicts, including those over the Indian Child Welfare Act, Cherokee freedmen citizenship, and off reservation fishing rights.