In 1953, the United States Congress dealt a crushing blow to tribal sovereignty with the passing of Public Law 280. This statute sought to reduce the role of the federal government on reservations by enabling certain states to assume criminal jurisdiction, a role previously reserved for tribal or federal courts. It was passed under the claim that it would combat high crime rates on reservations.
However, after its passage, it would appear that the law led to its own host of problems and was used as a pretext to fulfil the federal government’s agenda of termination at the time. Public Law 280 reflected the policy of the time of termination, in which throughout the 1940s to the 1960s, the federal government aimed to distance itself from tribes by ending or terminating its relationship with Indigenous nations. Termination worked to accomplish this by ending recognition of tribal sovereignty. The eventual goal was to assimilate Indigenous peoples and abandon their tribes.
When Public Law 280 was first enacted, it was applied without consent of the affected tribes. Besides the lack of consent being itself an ethical issue, the law was problematic for a number of reasons. Previous treaties granted the right to certain tribes that jurisdiction would belong exclusively to the tribe – federal or state governments would not be involved in the tribe’s affairs. In addition, earlier decisions by the Supreme Court had guaranteed freedom for tribes from state governments, even for tribes without treaties. The passing of Public Law 280 set a complete reversal of the established precedent: by repealing treaty rights and increasing the power of state governments over tribal affairs, Public Law 280 symbolically diminished tribal sovereignty as it placed state authority over tribal land. However, the effects of the law are not only symbolic; there were a number of indirect consequences that resulted from its passage.
Public Law 280 was touted as a solution to fight “lawlessness” on reservations. It was believed that by empowering state governments, the state could fight the problem of crime whereas tribal governments apparently could not. However, with the passage of the law, the situation deteriorated even further through jurisdictional vacuums and abuse of power by state officials in two notable examples of failures of Public Law 280.
Jurisdictional vacuums were created where neither tribal or state governments had authority, resulting in violence on reservations. For example, in 1993, the murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas helped spark controversy of the law. Ms. Davis, the sister of the murderer, was not a member of the Coyote Valley tribe and lived on the reservation. For years, because of her misbehavior and suspected drug dealing, the tribe had tried to evict her.
However, jurisdictional vacuums prevented the eviction. The tribe lacked law enforcement that could perform an eviction because of the loss of federal funding from Public Law 280. In addition, the state government could not carry out an eviction because trust land was involved, and the state did not have authority over these lands. Although the drug violations provided sufficient reason for the eviction, there was no police response. This was because cultural differences made law enforcement reluctant to come on reservations. The federal government had power to perform an eviction with the consent of the tribe, but federal courts were also hesitant to grant an eviction because of the time and cost associated with the action.
When Ms. Davis was removed from the reservation by the FBI for questioning regarding the murder, the members of the tribe mobilized, and the following result was violence. While Ms. Davis was away, the tribe set up blockades to the entrance of the reservation, where access was limited to only tribal members. When law enforcement tried to return Ms. Davis to the reservation, tensions rose between the local law enforcement and the tribe as the tribe would not allow Ms. Davis to reenter. A standoff ensued where gun fire was exchanged between the two parties. Eventually, an agreement was met where Ms. Davis would not be allowed back on the reservation. Had the tribe retained the authority that it previously had, the people of Coyote Valley would have had the means to properly govern themselves without parental interference from the state government. Through jurisdictional vacuums, we can see that Public Law 280 interfered in their ability to properly fight crime.
Jurisdictional vacuums were not the only problem created from Public Law 280. In an ironic twist, the state law enforcement, who were meant to combat lawlessness, abused their power and acted unlawfully. In 1995, a string of homicides occurred within the Round Valley Reservation in Northern California. On the reservation, there was a divide within the community between traditional and more assimilated Christian tribal members. When an outbreak of violence erupted between the groups, the law enforcement sided with the more assimilated group and did not prosecute crimes committed by the group. Although abuses by the assimilated group went unchecked, legal action was taken against the traditional group.
Eventually, the violence led to the murder of tribal members and police officers. The response by the police was severe on the traditional group. Tribe members described the situation as “living in a state of terror” because of the police brutality and the abuse of power that ensued. Misconduct committed by the police include: searching homes without warrants, physical and verbal abuse, reckless shooting, excessive force, and wrongfully using weapons as a form of intimidation. From this event, not only did Public Law 280 lead to a lack of trust in law enforcement for tribal members, giving authority to the state government led to an increase in crime on the reservation.
The outcome of Public Law 280 has led to devastating consequences to affected tribes. As seen earlier, the ability for tribes to fight crime has been hindered by transferring power to state governments. Not only has it become a new source of problems for reservations, it is an attack on tribal sovereignty itself. Ultimately, as long as Public Law 280 is still active, Indigenous nations will continue to fight to reclaim their sovereignty and to determine their own futures.
Calloway, Colin. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, 6th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019, pp. 448-454.
“Funding Inequity and California’s Special Legal Status.” aisc.ucla.edu. American Indian Studies Center of UCLA, www.aisc.ucla.edu/ca/Tribes11.htm.
Goldberg, Carole E. “Public Law 280: The Limits of State Jurisdiction overReservation Indians.” UCLA Law Review, vol. 22, no. 3, February 1975, p. 535-594. HeinOnline.
Gardener, Jerry and Ada Pecos Melton. “Public Law 280: Issues and Concerns for Victims of Crime in Indian Country.” Tribal Court Clearinghouse. http://www.tribal-institute.org/articles/gardner1.htm