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What is Suzerainty?


Suzerainty occurs when a region or group of people has a limited amount of authority but is controlled by a larger and more powerful entity.  Sovereignty relates to suzerainty but is different.  Sovereignty occurs when the region or group of people is allowed to rule themselves and is not subject to control by a foreign power. 


Suzerainty has occurred since the beginning of recorded history, but the most common examples in the United States occurred between Native American tribes and the United States government. 


Notable Cases in United States History Involving Suzerainty


Several notable cases have addressed the United State’s rights to authority over Native American tribes, and some of these cases are provided below:


United States v. Kagama


In 1985, Congress passed the Major Crimes Act and the Indian Appropriations Act of 1885.  This gave federal courts jurisdiction over major crimes that were committed by a Native American against another Native American.  The Native American Kagama was tried in June of 1885 for the murder of another Native American, but he challenged the court’s jurisdiction and argued the Indian Appropriations Act was unconstitutional. 


The court did reason that the Constitution is all but silent on relations between the government and tribes in the United States.  However, the court ruled that it had jurisdiction over the case because tribes “owe all their powers to the statutes of the United States conferring on them the powers which they exercise, and which are liable to be withdrawn, modified, or repealed at any time by Congress.” 


Johnson v. M’Intosh


This case occurred in 1823 and involved a dispute over land in Illinois.  Johnson inherited the land from his father who has previously bought the land from the Piankeshaw Indians.  However, M’Intosh later received rights to the land from the United States.  The case approached the following question: do Native American have title to their land?


The answer was no.  Native Americans did have rights of possession for the land, but they did not have title to the land because of individual property rights.  The United States has complete title to the land because of the discovery and conquest of the land by the Europeans.  The chain of title starts with the United States and filters down to individual persons with title to the land. 


Worcester v. Georgia


This case also involved federal jurisdiction over a tribal community.  In 1832, Georgia law required all white living in a Cherokee Indian Territory to acquire a state license.  Two missionaries on the territory refused to follow the state law and were arrested.  They were soon convicted and sentenced to four years of hard labor.  They appealed the case and argued in front of the Supreme Court that their conviction was unconstitutional because the state of Georgia did not have power to pass laws for the Native American Nations. 


The Supreme Court ruled that states do not have the power to pass laws that affect Native American nations because the jurisdiction was exclusive to the federal government. 


Sources: https://tlc-patch.tourolaw.edu/patch/CaseSummary.asp