"The federal-Indian relationship is like no other in the world. Indian tribes are denominated 'domestic-dependent nations' but their practical relationship with the United States 'resembles that of a ward to his guardian.' Indian tribes appear to have the same political status as the independent states of San Marino, Monaco, and Liechtenstein, yet they have little real self-government and seem to be forever mired in a state of political and economic pupilage."
This fifteen-year-old statement from Vine Deloria, Jr., the preeminent Indian political and legal scholar, still accurately reflects the convoluted nature of indigenous political, legal, and economic statuses in the United States. The multiple, overlapping, and sometimes seemingly irreconcilable manifestations of indigenous status in federal law and policy arise in Supreme Court cases, congressional statutes, treaties, agreements, and administrative regulations. These various statuses have multiplied and expanded in unusual directions, but they trace their lineage under United States law to the early moments of the American Republic's existence. Variations on indigenous status, however, date back to Columbus' conflicting commentary on Indian and Spanish theological debates about whether or not Indians were by nature free persons or slaves.
Copyright © 2001 Stanford Law School. This article first appeared in Stanford Law & Policy Review (March 2001), 223-235.
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Wilkins, David E. “The Manipulation of Indigenous Status: The Federal Government as Shape-Shifter.” Stanford Law & Policy Review 12, no. 2 (March 2001), 223-236.