What stuck out to me most in this week’s reading was the passage in the excerpt from Sidney Harring’s Crow Dog’s case in which the US courts referred to reservation jails as “analogous to a school.” Throughout this reading there is a focus on the nuanced and individualistic systems that tribes developed to deal with criminal activity, and it was hard to read without making quick comparisons to our massive prison industrial complex. Our country imprisons far more than any other, and among countless other problems boasts a recidivism rate of almost 50%, largely due to the fact that our system benefits as more people are brought in, and does not make any effort to help those individuals who have been imprisoned. The history of our prisons has not been a pretty one, and our system has always had a punitive focus rather than a rehabilitative one. Because of this, by comparing reservation jails to schools, the US courts were attempting to discredit them in order to replace established tribal systems with ones more similar to those in the rest of the United States.
In the case of Crow Dog, this manifested itself the US authorities taking Crow Dog to court and sentencing him to be hanged for the murder of Spotted Tail, although he had already paid restitution to Spotted Tail’s family and the matter had been settled according to Sioux law. Although the Supreme Court reversed the federal court’s decision and Crow Dog was released, this case led to the development of the Major Crimes Act of 1885, which placed several felony offenses under jurisdiction of the federal government.
The federal court’s decision in Crow Dog’s case showed the prejudice many felt against the traditional ways of many Indian tribes: many whites wanted to assimilate Indians and do away with the tribal laws that they saw as “heathen” or “savage” and replace them with white laws. However, what is ironic in this case is that it was in the “civilized” society where a man would have been put to death, and in a “heathen” society where he would have to pay restitution to the satisfaction of the family of the man whom he had killed. The prevalent racist attitudes of whites towards Indians created a sense of moral and ethical superiority, which is evident in much the US’s Federal Indian Policy. Although Crow Dog helped at first to establish tribal sovereignty, the lack of power the US had in the situation led the federal government to pass the Major Crimes Act, a major restriction on the ability of tribes to govern themselves.