Today United States v. Sandoval (1913) is studied for many reasons, and among those are questions of federal versus state authority, the legal definition of an Indian, and the unintended consequences of well-intentioned US laws on Indian tribes.
In Sandoval the primary constitutional question before the Supreme Court was whether federal Indian legislation applied to the Pueblo who lived in New Mexico. Congress had passed a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol and liquor to Indians in New Mexico. A nonnative named Felipe Sandoval sold liquor to the Pueblo at San Juan and was prosecuted by the federal government. Sandoval argued that the Indian Nonintercourse Act of the 18th century precluded Congress from regulating the Pueblo because they were Indians. Suddenly, the case transformed from a simple prosecution under a liquor law to an inquiry into the authority of governments over Indians and whether certain types of Indians were still considered Indians under the law.
The conservative Justice Willis Van Devanter took a convoluted approach to the case. He, along with a unanimous Court, decided that federal Indian statues generally apply to the Pueblo. Van Devanter rejected the lower courts’ ruling that the Pueblo had fee simple ownership of land, relying on the concept that the Spanish Crown and Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo granted and guaranteed the land title to the Pueblo as a community, not individuals. Thus, Congress could regulate the sale of liquor under the Indian Commerce Clause because it decided that the Pueblo were Indians, regardless of how reformed or civilized they had become since colonial days. Finally, in a stroke of judicial restraint, Van Devanter wrote: “Of course, it is not meant by this that Congress may bring a community or body of people within the range of this power by arbitrarily calling them an Indian tribe, but only that in respect of distinctly Indian communities the questions whether, to what extent, and for what time they shall be recognized and dealt with as dependent tribes requiring the guardianship and protection of the United States are to be determined by Congress, and not by the courts.”1 Essentially, Van Devanter deferred to the judgment of Congress on what constitutes Indian identity.
The final questions around Sandoval are why a known conservative chose to craft an opinion that affirmed the power of the federal government, whether the Court knew that the decision would not bode well for the Pueblo who later were victims of land theft by nonnatives, and how the deference of Sandoval affects people who consider themselves Indians to the disagreement of Congress.
1. United States v. Sandoval, 231 U.S. 28 (1913).