March 18th, 1831

States Supreme Court Refuses to Enforce Cherokee-United States Treaties

Beginning in 1827, the State of Georgia enacted legislation that nullified Cherokee laws and appropriated Cherokee lands. In response to Georgia’s extension of its law over the Cherokee Nation, the Cherokee filed suit in the United States Supreme Court, challenging the legislation and citing treaties the nation had previously entered into with the United States government. The Cherokee argued that those treaties established the Cherokee Nation as a sovereign and independent state.

On March 18, 1831, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. Chief Justice John Marshall avoided deciding whether the State of Georgia could extend its law over the Cherokee tribes, instead ruling that the Cherokee Nation was not a “foreign nation” and that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to hear its claims.

The Court observed that while the Native Americans have an “unquestioned right to the lands they occupy, until that right shall be extinguished by a voluntary cession to our government; [] it may well be doubted whether those tribes which reside within the acknowledged boundaries of the United States can, with strict accuracy, be denominated foreign nations.” The Court emphasized that Native Americans were “domestic dependant nations” and that “[t]heir relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian,” and concluded that an Indian tribe could not bring suit in an American court.

The Court’s ruling refused to enforce the treaties the Cherokee asserted protected them from state and federal interference, and left the tribe vulnerable to the Indian Removal Act that forced their relocation later that year.