Vanderbilt Law Review


James W. King

First Page



Native American tribes present unique problems to American jurisprudence and governance. Unquestionably subject to federal control on some levels, they have maintained the "inherent powers of a limited sovereignty" over internal affairs.' While both the Supreme Court and Congress have recognized this sovereignty, specific Congressional mandate can abrogate it at any time. This Note addresses the question of whether Congress has mandated federal jurisdiction over all serious crimes committed by Indians against other Indians on tribal land.

The story is long and complicated, with its beginnings in the 1883 Supreme Court case Ex parte Crow Dog, in which the Court declared that the United States could not prosecute intra-tribal crimes committed on tribal land. Alarm in Congress over the perceived gap in law enforcement led to the Major Crimes Act, which listed certain intra-tribal offenses as falling under federal jurisdiction for prosecution. Specific enumeration begged the question that still rages in the circuit courts: whether Congress intended tho list to stand for the full extent of federal jurisdiction over intra-tribal crimes, or whether other generally applicable federal criminal statutes could also be used to prosecute intra-tribal crimes that take place on tribal land. The circuit courts have fallen into essentially two camps, one favoring tribal jurisdiction and the other supporting federal jurisdiction.