Between the territorial court decision in United States v. Varela, the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Joseph, Judge Pope’s federal district court opinion in United States v. Sandoval, and the Supreme Court’s response to that decision, there is a discourse on indigeneity that it difficult to sit through. In all of these cases, the courts have made the indigeneity of Pueblo Indians their concern in negotiating competing federal, state, or territorial claims to governance.
Non-Indian interests are recurring motives in Indian law that subsume indigenous rights within both national and local non-Indian power dynamics. In all of the cases at hand federal authority to govern Pueblo Indians was challenged for the threat that authority posed to the interests of private U.S. citizens, or the territory, and later state, of New Mexico. In order to challenge the federal authority over these peoples, defendants in each case relied upon a variety of arguments that can be generalized into three points: 1) The people of the Pueblos were not Indians, or did not constitute a tribe, invalidating any authority of Congress to regulate or govern their affairs beyond those of any other citizen of the United States. 2) The land holdings of the Pueblo Indians are not held in trust but fee-simple, therefore they cannot be considered Indian Country. 3) The equal footing of the territory, or state, of New Mexico with the other sovereign states of the country gives it the exclusive right to manage the affairs of private citizens, including Indians.
In considering these arguments the courts were compelled to determine fundamental aspects of indigeneity which would be clarified by Congress only a few years later in extending citizenship to all Indians. In issuing these decision, a number of factors were considered that could have affected the status of Pueblo Indians: race, degree of civilization, morality, intelligence, industriousness, treaty relationships (or the lack thereof), land use and ownership, citizenship status, dependency on the federal government, and assimilation. These many factors were invoked, and contested, between the court decisions and interpreted to suit the interests of each court (e.g. federal district court Judge Pope in effect appealed to the fourteenth amendment to argue that Pueblo Indians as citizens were entitled to equal treatment under the Constitution, which Congress could not disregard just because of their race.)
In none of the opinions issued by the courts however, is the sovereignty of the Pueblo Indians addressed. In the district court opinion on Sandoval the local governments of the Pueblos were cited as evidence of their degree of civilization, while this same characteristic was used in the Supreme Court decision to demonstrate their primitivism. But in neither instance did the courts consider that this system of governance and the aboriginal presence of these peoples secured them as sovereign communities. This is perhaps an understandable omission given the blatant racism that pervades the rest of the discussion in these cases. But it can not likely be considered mere prejudiced negligence on the part of the courts, when for nearly a century the sovereignty of Indian nations have been a central issue of Indian law. To ignore the entire contention over indigenous sovereignty that has been at the center of case after case, can only be an overt intention to erase Pueblo sovereignty and confine these peoples to U.S dominion, whether federal, state, or territorial. Even though Varela, Joseph, and Sandoval were all decided during the assimilationist era, it is not possible that they could simply assume or fail to acknowledge Pueblo sovereignty. It was a deliberate omission.