Reclaiming the Reservation
Histories of Indian Sovereignty Suppressed and Renewed
In the 1970s the Quinault and Suquamish, like dozens of Indigenous nations across the United States, asserted their sovereignty by applying their laws to everyone on their reservations. This included arresting non-Indians for minor offenses—actions that triggered federal litigation with profound implications for Indian tribes' place in the American political system. Tribal governments had long sought to manage affairs in their territories, and their bid for all-inclusive reservation jurisdiction was an important, bold move, driven by deeply rooted local histories as well as pan-Indian activism. They believed federal law supported their case.
In 1978, in a decision that reverberated across Indian country, the Supreme Court struck a blow to their efforts by ruling in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe that non-Indians were not subject to tribal prosecution for criminal offenses. The court cited two centuries of US legal history to justify their decision that relied solely on the interpretations of non-Indians.
In Reclaiming the Reservation, Alexandra Harmon delves into Quinault and Suquamish histories and perspectives to illuminate the deep roots of tribes’ claim to regulatory power in their reserved homelands, revealing the promises and perils of relying on the US legal system to address the damage caused by colonial dispossession. She also demonstrates how tribes have responded in the years since 1978 by finding new ways to protect their interests and assert their sovereignty.
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