Clarifying Policy

Clarifying Policy

by Daniel Orr -
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Harring’s chapter, “the high pretension of savage sovereignty,” outlines how U.S federal law was created and shaped to serve federal interests. Even though this is already assumed by most people familiar with American history, Harring outlined very clearly how this process unfolded and helps answer a recurring question in the study of Federal Indian Policy: what has caused the arbitrary application of precedent and numerous resulting contradictions within the field?

In Harring we find a few structural descriptions of U.S federal law.

  1. The United States crafted its own legal history and tradition, a combination of British, international, and indigenous legal systems.

  2. In creating this legal tradition the U.S created law and policy to justify and authorize its political objectives

  3. Federal Indian policy was developed separately from the larger body of U.S law and has since been isolated both legally and ideologically of as a field of law.

  4. Being segregated in this manner, Indian policy was arbitrarily applied to suit individual interests, precedents were selectively called upon, often divorced from the context of their original decision, and cases or laws which protected indigenous sovereignty were forgotten, overlooked, or rejected by subsequent courts.

  5. The various definitions of indigeneity and sovereignty have been used to formulate different degrees of federal authority and indigenous self-governance, most often to create ambiguous and contradictory systems that burden and limit tribal governments.

While studying individual cases or legislation it is easy to become lost in judicial or legislative reasoning, to wonder how individual decisions could ignore or so blatantly contradict previous ones. But Harring’s description of federal policy as a uniform system takes these ambiguities and contradictions out of their unique situation, placing them in the context of the entire legal system. From this perspective what seems to be an unorganized and inconsistent system becomes a mostly coherent structure designed to further the political aims of the United States. The sovereignty of indigenous peoples, and personal liberty of U.S citizens, are negotiated in their position relative to this larger structure and purpose. With this structure in mind, it’s much easier to understand how the primary interests of the Court in determining the Marshall Trilogy were white property-owners, federal authority, and the preservation of the Union, although indigenous peoples were most significantly affected. Likewise it can be understood how decisions like those in Worcester, Standing Bear, and Crow Dog, have little standing in the Court today. We can understand why federal law is made without Native consent and why there is no recourse for Natives to challenge those laws. It can explain the congressional decision to stop making treaties with Indians, a decision that oversteps legislative powers and intrudes into executive authority in direct contradiction with the Constitution and the sovereignty of Indian tribes. Understanding how this structure has been developed demystifies federal indian policy.