World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

United States v. Kagama

Article Id: WHEBN0010341904
Reproduction Date:

Title: United States v. Kagama  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: United States v. Lara, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, Ex parte Crow Dog, History of Humboldt County, California, Suzerainty
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

United States v. Kagama

United States v. Kagama
Submitted May 10, 1886
Argued March 2, 1886
Full case name United States v. Kagama, alias Pactah Billy, an Indian, and another.
Citations 118 U.S. 375 (more)
6 S.Ct. 1109, 30 L.Ed. 228
The Major Crimes Act was constitutional, and, therefore, the case was within the jurisdiction of the federal courts. This ruling meant that the San Francisco Court's indictment would stand.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Miller
Laws applied
U.S. Constit. Art. I, § 8, cl. 3; 18 U.S.C. § 1153

United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375 (1886), is a United States Supreme Court case that upheld the Constitutionality of the Major Crimes Act of 1885. Kagama, a Yurok Native American (Indian) accused of murder, was selected as a test case by the Department of Justice to test the constitutionality of the Act, which was passed as a rider to an appropriations bill. This Congressional Act gave the federal courts jurisdiction in certain cases of Indian on Indian crimes, even if the crimes were committed on an Indian reservation. The importance of the ruling in this case was that it upheld the constitutionality of the Act and confirmed Congress’ plenary power over Indian affairs. Plenary power over Indian tribes, supposedly granted to the U.S. Congress by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, was not necessary to support by the Supreme Court in this decision; instead, the Court found the power in the tribes' status as dependent domestic nations. This allowed Congress to pass the Dawes Act the following year. The case has been criticized by legal scholars as drawing on powers that are not granted to Congress by the Constitution.


Crow Dog

an Indian, facing left-front
Crow Dog

In 1881, a Brulé Lakota Sioux named Crow Dog, killed his government-installed chief.[1] Crow Dog was detained and tried for the murder.[2] However, Crow Dog contended that the United States held no jurisdiction on the reservation. The Supreme Court agreed, confirming Crow Dog’s assertion that they lacked jurisdiction because the crime occurred in Indian Country between two Indians. In the opinion issued by Justice Thomas Stanley Matthews for the Supreme Court on Ex parte Crow dog,[3] the Court implied that if Congress intended to exert legislative authority over these tribes they must pass an explicit law-granting jurisdiction to the federal courts over Indian on Indian crime in Indian Country, and then the Court would confirm its constitutionality.[4]

The Major Crimes Act of 1885

In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling of no jurisdiction in Ex parte Crow Dog, Congress debated the need and importance of teaching Indians regard for the rule of law. Further, it was argued, that if an Indian committed a crime he should be treated like a criminal and tried under the laws of the land.[5] Congress ultimately passed an addendum to the Indian Appropriations Act of March 3, 1885, more commonly known as the Major Crimes Act[6] claiming exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government to prosecute Indians for seven major crimes any where in the land, including Indian reservations.[fn 1][8] The seven original crimes included in the 1885 act (the list is now 15 crimes) were murder, manslaughter, rape, assault with intent to kill, arson, burglary, and larceny.[9]

Hoopa Valley Reservation

Trinity River near reservation

The Hoopa Valley Reservation was created by executive order in 1864.[10] At the time when the reservation was formed, three unique bands of Indian tribes lived on different parts of the Klamath River, each with its own language. The Yurok lived on the Lower Klamath, the Karak occupied the upper Klamath and the Hupa lived at the confluence of the Trinity and Klamath Rivers in Humboldt County, California. When the reservation was formed it was planned as a repository for other tribes within the region.[11]

The tribes living along the river had long established rules for property rights and ownership, including how property was to be passed down from one generation to the next. In some cases, families owned lands that were located at a substantial distance from their “home” village.

In charge of the reservation was the Indian Agent, Major Charles Porter, who by commanding the local military garrison (Fort Gaston) on the reservation was charged with the de facto responsibility for the people on the reservation.[12] Without legal authority and against government policy, Porter took it upon himself to allot small parcels of land to the local people, thus upsetting an age-old property rights system among families in the Klamath River Valley.[13] On several occasions, Agent Porter had been called out to Kagama[fn 2] and Iyouse’s[fn 3] homes to mediate their property dispute. Shortly before the murder, Kagama requested a title to the land upon which he built his home.[16]

The crime

On the day of June 24, 1885, only weeks after the Major Crimes Act was passed, Kagama and his son Mahawaha went to Iyouse’s house; where an argument ensued which resulted in the stabbing and death of Iyouse.[17] Mahawaha reportedly held Iyouse's wife while Kagama stabbed Iyouse.[18] Agent Porter moved quickly to detain both Kagama and Mahawaha on the charge of murder. He informed both federal and state authorities. The local district attorney declined to prosecute, citing a policy of not prosecuting crimes between Indians.[19] The U.S. Attorney for Northern California forcefully prosecuted the case.[20] On October 18, 1885, both Kagama and Mahawaha were taken to San Francisco for trial, after having been indicted[fn 4] for murder.[22] The indictment charged that the crime occurred on the reservation, even though it was later determined at the trial to have occurred outside of the reservation boundaries to the north.[23]

The path to the Supreme Court

Because the crime supposedly occurred on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, the U.S. Attorney and the BIA fully supported the jurisdictional shift to the federal government and were immediately prepared to prosecute the case in federal courts. Challenges to the certificate of division" resulting in the case being forwarded to the Supreme Court later in October.[24]

Since this case challenged the authority of the Federal courts to try Indian on Indian crime, this case was heard as an interlocutory appeal, meaning that the Supreme Court would have to decide the constitutionality of the claimed jurisdiction before Kagama could be tried for the killing of Iyouse in federal court.[25]

Opinion of the Court

a white man in a suit, facing left-front, wearing judicial robes
Justice Miller, author of the opinion


The defendant was represented by twenty-seven-year-old Joseph D. Redding[fn 5] and the United States by Solicitor General [27]

Jenks argued the language from Crow Dog, claiming that Congress possessed the authority, because of the Indian Commerce Clause[28] of the Constitution, to regulate all commerce with Indian tribes. In his listing of precedents, he cited numerous laws passed by Congress regulating Indian commerce;[29] he did not cite any other case law that supported Congress’ authority over internal Indian matters, because there was none.[30] Further, Jenks incorporated aspects of the political debate in Congress when the act was passed citing that the U.S. should be able to enforce its laws within its borders, regardless of treaty rights. The prosecution’s “contention is that Congress may regulate intercourse with the Indians in whatever way it may deem wise and prudent.”[31]

Joseph Redding defended his clients vigorously. His argument was three-fold. First he argued that in one hundred years of Indian policy, Congress had never prosecuted Indian-on-Indian crime.[32] Further, the indictment as stated contained no element of commerce and was therefore outside the purview of Congress to legislate such a law.[33] Finally, he argued that such a profound shift in Indian policy should not be enacted in a law whose heading and body were wholly inconsistent with the intent of the Major Crimes Act. In effect, he argued that such a law governing a people should be debated in full sight of the American public and on its own merits.[34] Redding argued that Congress lacked the authority to exert power over sovereign people that reserved certain rights by ceding large amounts of land to the federal government in treaties.[35] He never argued that the tribes did have a system of law that dealt with crimes against another human.[36]

The Supreme Court’s decision

In a unanimous decision issued at the end of May 1886, authored by Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, the Supreme Court ruled that the Major Crimes Act was constitutional, and, therefore, the case was within the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Miller dismissed, however, the argument that the Act was proper under the Indian Commerce Clause, noting that the case did not present a commerce issue.[fn 6][38] He held instead that it was necessary since Indians were wards of the United States.[39]

All told, from the perpetration of the crime to the Supreme Court decision, eleven months had passed. Justice Miller was well known for writing opinions that supported federal power over state’s rights. This ruling meant that the San Francisco Circuit Court's indictment would stand and the case would proceed to trial back in Northern California.[40]

The opinion drew heavily on the language of the Solicitor General’s brief, which by today’s standards, would be considered by many as racially charged. The language in the opinion authored by Miller is infamous for its description of Indian tribes as weak, degraded and dependent on the Federal government for support. He adopts language from [41] describing tribes as a “ward” and in a state of “pupilage.”[42]

Miller, having dismissed the Indian Commerce Clause as a source of authority, did not cite another constitutional source of the power.[43] In effect, this decision claimed that the U.S. government had supreme authority to enforce laws within its borders; but did not mention where this power was outlined in the Constitution.[44]

Subsequent developments

Trial of Kagama

The trial was then held in San Francisco. The prosecution called four witnesses, including Iyouse's wife and a boy named "Charlie" who saw the murder. The defense called one witness, John B. Treadwell. Treadwell testified that the murder was outside the boundaries of the reservation. Based on Treadwell's position with the General Land Office, the judge believed him and ordered a directed verdict of not guilty.[fn 7]

Consequences of the decision

Kagama was the case that articulated Congress' plenary power over the Native American tribes in the late 19th century.[46] It reaffirmed Congress' power to pass legislation, including the Dawes Act, that would take away many of the liberties that Native Americans had been able to hold on to up until that point.[47] 19th and early 20th century U.S. lawmakers viewed the American Indians as inferior people who would benefit from being assimilated into the Euro-American culture.[48] The laws that followed the Kagama ruling were attempts to destroy the Native American cultural differences and force these tribes to share the Euro-American culture viewed by these lawmakers to be the superior culture.[49]

Criticism of the decision

The decision has been widely criticized by legal scholars. David E. Wilkins noted that if the Indian Commerce Clause or Taxation Clause[50] did not contain the authority, and the tribes had not granted it by treaty or consent, then the Major Crimes Act would be unconstitutional and the Court should have declared it void.[51] Phillip P. Frickey describes the Kagama decision as "a whirlwind of circular reasoning",[52] with the Court justifying Congressional power due to the tribe's weakness, which it also noted was due to the tribes dealing with the U.S. government. Frickey felt the decision was an embarrassment to constitutional theory, to logic, and to humanity.[fn 8] Robert N. Clinton stated that "[t]his remarkable decision obviously invoked rhetoric of colonial expansion, rather than the rhetoric of American constitutional discourse."[54] Daniel L. Rotenberg said that Kagama was "one more item on the long litany of injustices to the American Indian."[55]

Various law reviews have also been critical of the decision. The Arizona State University law journal has stated that the decision was incorrect, that the Major Crimes Act is in fact unconstitutional.[56] The University of Pennsylvania Law Review noted that "the Court promulgated what can be called the 'it-must-be-somewhere' doctrine...."[57]

See also


  1. ^ The Act exempted several tribes, including the Five Civilized Tribes from its provisions.[7]
  2. ^ Kagama was also known as Billy Pactaw.[14]
  3. ^ Iyouse was also known as Jefferson Dowd.[15]
  4. ^ The indictment charged them with "not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved and seduced by the institution of the devil ... had feloniously, willfully, and with malice aforethought did make an assault ... with a certain knife made of iron and steel."[21]
  5. ^ Redding had been appointed to represent Kagama by Judge Sawyer.[26]
  6. ^ Miller said that it would be "a very strained construction of this clause that a system of criminal laws for Indians ... was authorized by the grant of power to regulate commerce with the Indian tribes."[37]
  7. ^ Although it is undisputed that Kagama killed Iyouse, the Major Crimes Act only allowed the federal government to prosecute crimes on reservation land. Since the murder did not happen within that jurisdiction, a not guilty verdict was required. California declined to prosecute, although they could have done so.[45]
  8. ^ Stating "Its apparent inconsistency with the most fundamental of constitutional principles—the McCulloch understanding that Congress ordinarily possesses only that authority delegated to it in the Constitution—is an embarrassment of constitutional theory. Its slipshod method of bootstrapping a congressional plenary power over Indian affairs is an embarrassment of logic. Its holding, which intimates that congressional power over Indian affairs is limitless, is an embarrassment of humanity."[53]


  1. ^ Mark Stuart Weiner, Americans Without Law: The Racial Boundaries of Citizenship 36 (2006).
  2. ^ Joseph D. Matal, A Revisionist History of Indian Country, 14 Alaska L. Rev. 283, 303 (1997).
  3. ^ Ex parte Crow Dog, 109 U.S. 556 (1883); Weiner, at 39-42; Matal, at 303.
  4. ^ Sidney L. Harring, The Story of United States v. Kagama, in Indian Law Stories 150 (Carole Goldberg, Kevin K. Washburn, & Phillip P. Frickey, eds., 2011); Weiner, at 39-42.
  5. ^ Weiner, at 44-45.
  6. ^ Major Crimes Act of 1885, Mar. 3, 1885, 62 Stat. 758 (codified as amended at 18 U.S.C. § 1151 et seq.).
  7. ^ David Eugene Wilkins, American Indian Sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court: The Masking of Justice 69 (1997) (hereinafter cited as Wilkins, Justice).
  8. ^ Matal, at 303.
  9. ^ Harring, at 150.
  10. ^ 1 Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties 815 (Charles J. Kappler, ed. 1904); Harring, at 152.
  11. ^ Harring, at 152.
  12. ^ Harring, at 155.
  13. ^ Harring, at 157.
  14. ^ Harring, at 155.
  15. ^ Harring, at 156.
  16. ^ Harring, at 157.
  17. ^ Weiner, at 45.
  18. ^ Harring, at 157.
  19. ^ Harring, at 157.
  20. ^ Harring, at 157.
  21. ^ Harring, at 157.
  22. ^ Harring, at 157.
  23. ^ Harring, at 152.
  24. ^ Harring, at 172.
  25. ^ Harring, at 172.
  26. ^ Oscar Tully Shuck, Bench and Bar in California: History, Anecdotes, Reminiscences 426 (1889).
  27. ^ Harring, at 172.
  28. ^ U.S. Const. Art. I, § 8, cl. 3.
  29. ^ Wilkins, Justice, at 70-71.
  30. ^ Harring, at 172-72.
  31. ^ Harring, at 176 (citing Br. for United States 23-24, United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375 (1886).
  32. ^ Harring, at 177.
  33. ^ Wilkins, Justice, at 69; Harring, at 178.
  34. ^ Harring, at 178.
  35. ^ Wilkins, Justice, at 69.
  36. ^ Harring, at 178-79.
  37. ^ Robert A. Williams, Like a Loaded Weapon: The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights, And the Legal History of Racism in America 80 (2005) (citing United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375, 378-79 (1886)).
  38. ^ John Harlan Vinzant, Supreme Court Interpretation and Policymaking in American Indian Policy 100 (2006).
  39. ^ Matal, at 303-04.
  40. ^ United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375 (1886).
  41. ^ U.S. 1 (1831).
  42. ^ Harring, at 180.
  43. ^ Wilkins, Justice, at 72-74.
  44. ^ Harring, at 180.
  45. ^ Shuck, at 426; Harring, at 180-81.
  46. ^ Vinzant, at 100; Michael A. Powell, Crow Dog and the Issue of Tribal Jurisdiction, in Law in the Western United States 288-90 (Gordon Morris Bakken ed. 2000).
  47. ^ David E. Wilkins, Reconsidering the Tribal-State Compact Process 22 Pol'y Stud. J. 474-488 (1994).
  48. ^ Petra T. Shattuck, Partial Justice 100 (1992).
  49. ^ Shattuck, at 100-02.
  50. ^ U.S. Const. Art. I, § 8, cl. 1.
  51. ^ Wilkins, Justice, at 74.
  52. ^ Philip P. Frickey, Domesticating Federal Indian Law, 81 Minn. L. Rev. 31, 34-35 (1996).
  53. ^ Frickey, at 34.
  54. ^ Robert N. Clinton, Tribal Courts and the Federal Union 26 Willamette L. Rev. 841 (1990).
  55. ^ Daniel L. Rotenberg, American Indian Tribal Death-A Centennial Remembrance, 41 U. Miami L. Rev. 409, 423 (1986).
  56. ^ Warren Stapleton, Indian Country, Federal Justice: Is the Exercise of Federal Jurisdiction Under the Major Crimes Act Constitutional? 29 Ariz. St. L.J. 337 (1997).
  57. ^ Federal Plenary Power in Indian Affairs After Weeks and Sioux Nation, 131 U. Pa. L. Rev. 235, 247 (1982).

Further reading

External links

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.