In the 1970s the Quinault and Suquamish, like dozens of Indigenous nations across the United States, asserted their sovereignty by applying their laws to everyone on their reservations. This included arresting non-Indians for minor offenses, and two of those arrests triggered federal litigation that had big implications for Indian tribes’ place in the American political system. Tribal governments had long sought to manage affairs in their territories, and their bid for all-inclusive reservation jurisdiction was an important, bold move, driven by deeply rooted local histories as well as pan-Indian activism. They believed federal law supported their case.
In a 1978 decision that reverberated across Indian country and beyond, the Supreme Court struck a blow to their efforts by ruling in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe that non-Indians were not subject to tribal prosecution for criminal offenses. The court cited two centuries of US legal history to justify their decision but relied solely on the interpretations of non-Indians.
In Reclaiming the Reservation, Alexandra Harmon delves into Quinault, Suquamish, and pan-tribal histories to illuminate the roots of Indians’ claim of regulatory power in their reserved homelands. She considers the promises and perils of relying on the US legal system to address the damage caused by colonial dispossession. She also shows how tribes have responded since 1978, seeking and often finding new ways to protect their interests and assert their sovereignty.