The importance of the ruling in this case was that it tested the constitutionality of the Act and confirmed Congress' authority over Indian affairs. Plenary power over Indian tribes, supposedly granted to the U.S. Congress by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, was not deemed necessary to support 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. It remains good law, despite that criticism.
In 1881, a Brulé Lakota Sioux named Crow Dog killed his government-installed chief. Crow Dog was detained and tried for murder. However, he contended that the
In response, 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 could be tried under the laws of the
The Hoopa Valley Reservation was created by executive order in 1864. At the time the reservation was formed, three unique bands of Indian tribes lived on different parts of the
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 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 (
On June 24, 1885, three months after the Major Crimes Act was passed, Kagama and his son Mahawaha went to Iyouse's house, where an argument ensued that resulted in the death by stabbing of Iyouse. Mahawaha reportedly held Iyouse's wife while Kagama stabbed Iyouse. Agent Porter moved quickly to detain both Kagama and Mahawaha on murder charges. He informed both federal and state authorities. The local district attorney declined to prosecute, citing a policy of not prosecuting crimes between Indians. The U.S. Attorney for
Because the crime supposedly occurred on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, the U.S. Attorney and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) fully supported the jurisdictional shift to the federal government and were immediately prepared to prosecute the case in federal courts. Challenges to the subject matter jurisdiction were heard before the circuit court in early October 1885. Circuit Judge Lorenzo Sawyer and District Court Judge George Sabin heard the challenge but disagreed on the law. The case received a "certificate of division" resulting in the case being forwarded to the Supreme Court later in October.
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.
Kagama was represented by 27-year-old Joseph D. Redding. The
Jenks urged the court to look to its earlier ruling in Crow Dog, where the Court commented in dicta that Congress possessed the authority to regulate all commerce with Indian tribes, because of the Indian Commerce Clause of the Constitution. In his listing of precedents, he cited numerous laws passed by Congress regulating Indian commerce; he did not cite any other case law that supported Congress' authority over internal Indian matters, because there was none. Further, Jenks incorporated aspects of the political debate in Congress when the act was passed citing that the
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. Further, the indictment as stated contained no element of commerce and was therefore outside the purview of Congress to legislate such a law. 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.
In a unanimous decision issued at the end of May 1886, and 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 the argument that the Act was proper under the Indian Commerce Clause, noting that the case did not present a commerce issue. He held instead that it was necessary since Indians were wards of the
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 Miller's opinion is infamous for its description of Indian tribes as weak, degraded and dependent on the federal government for support. He adopts language from Cherokee Nation v. Georgia describing each tribe as a "ward" and in a state of "pupilage."
Miller, having dismissed the Indian Commerce Clause as a source of authority, did not cite another constitutional source of the power. In effect, this decision contended that the