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Discover Mid-America March 2005
Cherokee Cases critique the rule of law
The Cherokee Cases: Two Landmark Federal Decisions in the Fight for Sovereignty by Jill Norgren, foreword by Kermit L. Hall and Melvin I. Urofsky; paperback, 224 pages, 3 maps; 2004, University of Oklahoma Press, www.oupress.com.
The history of Native American-U.S. relations
has often come down to the details antagonisms between people and
cultures, army decisions and movements, or Indian raids on villages, farms
and wagon trains. More often the stories of treaties, land deals, allotments
and acculturation programs include important notions of cultural conflict,
federal and tribal government corruption, and even the manipulations of
But rarely do historians discuss in detail the legal basis for Indian removals, treaties and exterminations. Just as infrequently do historians discuss the development of Indian nation sovereignty.
These two issues, land appropriation and sovereignty, are precisely why Jill Norgrens The Cherokee Cases is such an interesting and compelling study of federal Indian policy.
And while Norgren looks at U.S. Supreme Court cases critical in creating
federal Indian law, she brings the cases to life with her lively and accessible
narrative, filled with complex characters, making the book as well-developed
as a novel. She tracks the development of the Cherokee and other southeastern
Indians from indigenous tribal groups to nations, which is still
a concept difficult for many Americans to understand.
Norgren argues that federal Indian law and policy was and remains colonial
in nature, and that Indian sovereignty depends on an exploitative and
colonial notion that Indian nations are nations only at the whim of the
sovereign, in this case, the United States. She examines two cases in
particular that became precedent for most federal Indian law to follow,
Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832).
But the interlopers faced a formidable foe. Cherokee had also internalized
European notions of law law enforcement and legal precedent, reasoning
This, of course, led to a federal Indian law and policy consistent only
in its arbitrary and highly political nature, its ability to be manipulated
to serve white (or dominant culture) constituencies, and streamline native
peoples into an economic system where capital and political access determine
who will benefit from specific policies.
Norgren points out that only with a swift and determined move away from using legal precedent can federal Indian law be brought out of its present colonial state to create a consistent and maintainable set of statute law and sovereign rights for Indian nations.
The Cherokee Cases has a good bit of supporting material present.
And its great reading, captivating to the extreme.
Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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