On this dayMar 18, 1831

Supreme Court Rules Cherokee Nation Is Barred from Suing to Enforce Treaties

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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 U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the legislation and citing treaties the nation had previously entered into with the U.S. 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, sidestepping the issue of whether Georgia could extend its law over the Cherokee tribes and instead ruling that the Cherokee Nation was not a “foreign nation”—so the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to hear its claims.

The Court observed that while Native Americans had 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 dependent nations” with a “relation to the United States [that] resembles that of a ward to his guardian” and concluded that Indigenous communities could not bring suit in an American court.

The Court refused to enforce the treaties that would have protected the Cherokee from state and federal interference, instead leaving them vulnerable to the Indian Removal Act—which resulted in the Cherokee's forcible removal later that year.

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