So far we have seen a number of cases that have put Indians in positions that are politically or otherwise disadvantaged, on the formal basis that tribe members are politically different from other Americans, even if the actual underlying reason for the decision is something uglier like racism or material greed. An example of this that seems to come up in many cases is the use of the word “dependent” at the surface-level to describe a practical (if unjustly-constructed) relationship between tribes and the federal government, but often is employed to falsely portray Indians as juvenile, primitive, or otherwise incapable of self-governance.
In United States v. Sandoval, it is difficult to ignore the fact that ethnicity and political status are inappropriately intermixed. There is little political basis for putting the Pueblo tribes under the same legal category as the northeastern tribes because the land on which they lived, and to some extend they themselves, were brought under U.S. control by entirely different circumstances and interactions. In the Statehood Proclamation that entered New Mexico into the Union, the Pueblo tribes were described as “dependent communities.” “Dependence” was initially used to describe the status of Indian tribes in 1931 because at least some benefitted in ways from aligning with the British against other powerful and violent European powers when they were still prominent players in the colonization of North America. The Pueblos never were part of this relationship, so without more specific justification for the labeling as “dependent”, we have to assume that this is another reference to an imagined racial inferiority. The Torres article describes Justice Devanter pulling considerations of ethnography, relative achievement of a Eurocentric picture of civilization, and comparison of their land holdings with those of other Indians, none of which are relevant to the legal status of one area of land with a unique history of conflict and diplomatic negotiations.
It is interesting the Sandoval decision was handed down right in the middle of the Assimilationist area—how is it aligned with or against other cases and U.S. values during this era? On the surface level, it seems that the decision to categorize the Pueblos as more like other tribes and less like other former-Mexican U.S. citizens goes against a trend of trying to take apart tribal communities. At the same time, the effect was to make plenary power applicable to a new group of people with cultural and governmental practices that may have been threatening to the federal government. Justice Van Devanter wrote that “citizenship is not in itself an obstacle to the exercise by Congress of its power to enact laws for the benefit and protection of tribal Indians as a dependent people,” but we have frequently seen that although Congress’s plenary power is often portrayed as benevolent and protective, its practice is frequently manipulative and destructive to tribal interests and rights. Simultaneously, the act of any part of U.S. government that attempts to take on the role of determining who is “Indian” is inherently a blow to tribal self-determination.