Williams v. Lee, No. 39

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBLACK
PartiesPaul WILLIAMS and Lorena Williams, Husband and Wife, Petitioners, v. Hugh LEE, Doing Business as Ganado Trading Post
Docket NumberNo. 39
Decision Date12 January 1959

358 U.S. 217
79 S.Ct. 269
3 L.Ed.2d 251
Paul WILLIAMS and Lorena Williams, Husband and Wife, Petitioners,

v.

Hugh LEE, Doing Business as Ganado Trading Post.

No. 39.
Argued Nov. 20, 1958.
Decided Jan. 12, 1959.

Mr. Norman M. Littell, Washington, D.C., for the petitioners.

Mr. Wm. W. Stevenson, Flagstaff, Ariz., for the respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent, who is not an Indian, operates a general store in Arizona on the Navajo Indian Reservation under a license required by federal statute.1 He brought this

Page 218

action in the Superior Court of Arizona against petitioners, a Navajo Indian and his wife who live on the Reservation, to collect for goods sold them there on credit. Over petitioners' motion to dismiss on the ground that jurisdiction lay in the tribal court rather than in the state court, judgment was entered in favor of respondent. The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed, holding that since no Act of Congress expressly forbids their doing so Arizona courts are free to exercise jurisdiction over civil suits by non-Indians against Indians though the action arises on an Indian reservation. 83 Ariz. 241, 319 P.2d 998. Because this was a doubtful determination of the important question of state power over Indian affairs, we granted certiorari. 356 U.S. 930, 78 S.Ct. 772, 2 L.Ed.2d 761.

Originally the Indian tribes were separate nations within what is now the United States. Through conquest and treaties they were induced to give up complete independence and the right to go to war in exchange for federal protection, aid, and grants of land. When the lands granted lay within States these governments sometimes sought to impose their laws and courts on the Indians. Around 1830 the Georgia Legislature extended its laws to the Cherokee Reservation despite federal treaties with the Indians which set aside this land for them.2 The Georgia statutes forbade the Cherokees from enacting laws or holding courts and prohibited outsiders from being on the Reservation except with permission of the State Governor. The constitutionality of these laws was tested in Worcester v. State of Georgia, 6 Pet. 515, 8 L.Ed. 483, when the State sought to punish

Page 219

a white man, licensed by the Federal Government to practice as a missionary among the Cherokees, for his refusal to leave the Reservation. Rendering one of his most courageous and eloquent opinions, Chief Justice Marshall held that Georgia's assertion of power was invalid. 'The Cherokee nation * * * is a distinct community, occupying its own territory * * * in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties, and with the acts of Congress. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation, is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.' 6 Pet. at page 561.

Despite bitter criticism and the defiance of Georgia which refused to obey this Court's mandate in Worcester3 the broad principles of that decision came to be accepted as law.4 Over the years this Court has modified these principles in cases where essential tribal relations were not involved and where the rights of Indians would not be jeopardized, but the basic policy of Worcester has remained. Thus, suits by Indians against outsiders in state courts have been sanctioned. See Felix v. Patrick,

Page 220

145 U.S. 317, 332, 12 S.Ct. 862, 867, 36 L.Ed. 719; United States v. Candelaria, 271 U.S. 432, 46 S.Ct. 561, 70 L.Ed. 1023. See also Harrison v. Laveen, 67 Ariz. 337, 196 P.2d 456. And state courts have been allowed to try non-Indians who committed crimes against each other on a reservation. E.g., People of State of New York ex rel. Ray v. Martin, 326 U.S. 496, 66 S.Ct. 307, 90 L.Ed. 261. But if the crime was by or against an Indian, tribal jurisdiction or that expressly conferred on other courts by Congress has remained exclusive.5 Donnelly v. United States, 228 U.S. 243, 269—272, 33 S.Ct. 449, 458—459, 57 L.Ed. 820; Williams v. United States, 327 U.S. 711, 66 S.Ct. 778, 90 L.Ed. 962. Essentially, absent governing Acts of Congress, the question has always been whether the state action infringed on the right of reservation Indians to make their own laws and be ruled by them. Cf. Utah & Northern Railway Co. v. Fisher, 116 U.S. 28, 6 S.Ct. 246, 29 L.Ed. 542.

Congress has also acted consistently upon the assumption that the States have no power to regulate the affairs of Indians on a reservation. To assure adequate government of the Indian tribes it enacted comprehensive statutes in 1834 regulating trade with Indians and organizing a Department of Indian Affairs. 4 Stat. 729, 735. Not satisfied solely with centralized government of Indians, it encouraged tribal governments and courts to become stronger and more highly organized. See, e.g., the Wheeler-Howard Act, §§ 16, 17, 48 Stat. 987, 988, 25 U.S.C. §§ 476, 477, 25 U.S.C.A. §§ 476, 477. Congress has followed a policy calculated eventually to make all Indians full-fledged participants in American society. This policy contemplates criminal and civil jurisdiction over Indians by any State ready to assume the burdens that go with it as soon as the educational and economic status of the Indians permits the change without disadvantage to

Page 221

them. See H.R.Rep. No. 848, 83d Cong., 1st Sess. 3, 6, 7 (1953). Significantly, when Congress has wished the States to exercise this power it has expressly granted them the jurisdiction which Worcester v. State of Georgia had denied.6

No departure from the policies which have been applied to other Indians is apparent in the relationship between the United States and the Navajos. On June 1, 1868, a treaty was signed between General William T. Sherman, for the United States, and numerous chiefs and...

To continue reading

Request your trial
693 practice notes
  • Hester v. Redwood Cnty., Civil No. 11–1690 ADM/JJK.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Minnesota
    • August 6, 2012
    ...sovereign status, the states generally cannot regulate or prescribe activity of Indian people within Indian Country. See Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 220, 79 S.Ct. 269, 3 L.Ed.2d 251 (1959) ( “Essentially, absent governing Acts of Congress, the question has always been whether the state a......
  • Means v. Navajo Nation, No. 01-17489.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • December 13, 2005
    ...710 F.2d 587, 595-98 (9th Cir.1983); Arizona ex rel. Merrill v. Turtle, 413 F.2d 683, 685-86 (9th Cir.1969); see also Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 221-22, 79 S.Ct. 269, 3 L.Ed.2d 251...
  • At & T Corp. v. Coeur D'Alene Tribe, No. 99-35088.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • March 19, 2002
    ...an Indian tribe has broad authority over disputes arising within the physical boundaries of its reservation. See, e.g., Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 222, 79 S.Ct. 269, 3 L.Ed.2d 251 (1959) (holding that where the underlying incidents occurred on the Reservation, the Tribal Court is assume......
  • Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation v. Adsit, Nos. 79-4887
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • February 22, 1982
    ...act did not deprive that state of power to punish for crimes committed on a reservation or Indian lands by non-Indians. Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 218, 223, 79 S.Ct. 269, 269, 273, 3 L.Ed.2d 251 (1958), held that the State of Arizona, which expressly disclaimed jurisdiction over Indian ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
691 cases
  • Hester v. Redwood Cnty., Civil No. 11–1690 ADM/JJK.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Minnesota
    • August 6, 2012
    ...sovereign status, the states generally cannot regulate or prescribe activity of Indian people within Indian Country. See Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 220, 79 S.Ct. 269, 3 L.Ed.2d 251 (1959) ( “Essentially, absent governing Acts of Congress, the question has always been whether the state a......
  • Means v. Navajo Nation, No. 01-17489.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • December 13, 2005
    ...710 F.2d 587, 595-98 (9th Cir.1983); Arizona ex rel. Merrill v. Turtle, 413 F.2d 683, 685-86 (9th Cir.1969); see also Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 221-22, 79 S.Ct. 269, 3 L.Ed.2d 251...
  • At & T Corp. v. Coeur D'Alene Tribe, No. 99-35088.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • March 19, 2002
    ...an Indian tribe has broad authority over disputes arising within the physical boundaries of its reservation. See, e.g., Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 222, 79 S.Ct. 269, 3 L.Ed.2d 251 (1959) (holding that where the underlying incidents occurred on the Reservation, the Tribal Court is assume......
  • Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation v. Adsit, Nos. 79-4887
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • February 22, 1982
    ...act did not deprive that state of power to punish for crimes committed on a reservation or Indian lands by non-Indians. Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 218, 223, 79 S.Ct. 269, 269, 273, 3 L.Ed.2d 251 (1958), held that the State of Arizona, which expressly disclaimed jurisdiction over Indian ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • Fighting for Air in Indian Country: Clean Air Act Jurisdiction in Off-Reservation Tribal Land
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Reporter Nbr. 45-10, October 2015
    • October 1, 2015
    ...regulation on tribal lands. 203 In ODEQ , Oklahoma only alleged that allowing an FIP in 192. Id . at 171-72 ( citing Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 219-20 (1959)). 193. Cohen’s Handbook, supra note 51, §2.01. 194. New Mexico v. Mescalero Apache Tribe, 462 U.S. 324, 334 (1983). 195. Cohen’s ......
  • TRIBES, VACCINES, AND COVID-19: A LOOK AT TRIBAL RESPONSES TO THE PANDEMIC.
    • United States
    • Fordham Urban Law Journal Vol. 49 Nbr. 1, November 2021
    • November 1, 2021
    ...tribes, such as the Chinook Indian Nation in the Pacific Northwest, have not been prioritized for vaccines."). (152.) Williams v. Lee. 358 U.S. 217, 220 (153.) See Matthew L.M. Fletcher. Indian Lives Matter: Pandemics and Inherent Tribal Powers. 73 STAN. L. REV. ONLINE 38, 38 (2020) ("While......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT