In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia the Supreme Court concluded that the Cherokees had proven themselves to be a political state distinct from the United States and the state of Georgia. But the Court denied their case, refusing to recognize this political state as a foreign nation but a “domestic dependent nation.” The Court justified that unique status relying on several arguments, including treaty language which recognized that Indian nations were under the protection of the United States. Justice Marshall then states that “some tribes” admitted their dependence to the state of New York during the years of the confederation. Therefore the Court concludes, while tribes occupy U.S. territory, they remain dependent, in a state of pupilage to the U.S. until their possession of U.S. land ceases.
In this decision the court invokes racist imagery of the Indian as simple savages, incapable of comprehending legal proceedings, who must inevitably yield to the model of European social organization. It was only because the Cherokee Nation had adopted legal and political structures recognizable to Europeans that their claims of statehood were accepted by the Court. Moreover, the Chief Justice presumes that individual nations represent the conceptions of all Indian peoples, ignoring the numerous, diverse forms of government, social organization, and community structures between the many tribes with which they did business. But perhaps most concerning, is the idea that the U.S inhabited a position of power with respect to the many Indian peoples within its territory, and that Indians were in a state of destitution in need of American protection, which clearly ignored the success and prosperity of tribes like the Cherokee Nation, and the continuing threat of Indigenous aggression against U.S lands and settlers.
Because the Court was managing different political interests throughout the years of the Marshall Trilogy, the original relationship implied by Cherokee Nation is radically reconfigured in Worcester. The dependency described in the earlier case is shown to be that of an ally seeking protection from encroachment and attack but does not surrender land or sovereignty to the U.S. And yet we hear in our readings that this position, which would greatly reaffirm Native rights of self-determination, is largely ignored in favor of the trustee relationship Marshall describes in Cherokee Nation.
Given the history of the Trilogy itself, it’s understandable that the Courts and the federal government would manipulate these decisions to fit their political interests with respect to Indian sovereignty. But while reading I was confused about how the Chief Justice had made the jump from protection to dependency in the first place.
After reading Worcester and its redefinition of protection, its clear that there was little reasoning behind Marshall’s proscription of dependency other than colonial perceptions of the wild, incompetent Indian, alongside the belief that Indian peoples would inevitably assimilate. The decision to deny the Cherokee Nation status as a foreign nation is based upon the Doctrine of Discovery which Marshall himself wrote into law eight years earlier; it at least is consistent with American and European law. The description of Indian nations as dependent wards of the U.S. however has no basis other than eurocentric conceptions of civilization, power, and intelligence.