Indian Country Statute (1948)


The term ‘Indian country’ first appeared in the British Proclamation of 1763 meaning the area west of the Appalachian Mountains that was reserved for the Indian people. Indian country was the place where tribes had jurisdiction, and where tribal laws applied. After the formation of the United States the line quickly moved westward, and then became more closely aligned with the Indian reservations created by treaties, statutes, and executive orders. The General Allotment Act eroded the tribal land base even further, and created a checkerboard pattern of jurisdiction where non-Natives owned land in between tribal and Indian owned lands. As a result of these changes, the term ‘Indian country’ was redefined by a complicated series of court decisions. 

In 1948, Congress passed a statute defining Indian country, in an attempt to help clarify tribal jurisdiction, and codify the prior court decisions. ’Indian country’ is the territorial area over which a tribe has jurisdiction; the land over which tribes can enforce their laws. The language reads: “Except as otherwise provided in sections 1154 and 1156 of this title, the term ‘Indian Country,’ as used in this chapter {18 USC Sec. 1151 et. seq.}, means (a) all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation, (b) all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a state, and (c) all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.” 

When this Act was passed by Congress, there were numerous reservations and reserves in Alaska, many Indian allotments, Native townsite lands, and Native villages that might have been considered ‘dependent Indian communities.’ But there was a long path ahead leading to the settlement of aboriginal claims, the questions over the existence of tribes after the settlement, and then the deliberations over what jurisdiction the tribes would have. Whether or not there is Indian country in Alaska was to be subject to much debate into the future. 

At this time we do know a few things about tribal jurisdiction and Indian country in Alaska: 

  • Tribes have more jurisdictional authority with Indian country than without it 
  • Land that has gone through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act is no longer Indian country because of a United States Supreme Court ruling in a case referred to as the ‘Venetie Tax case’ (State of Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie 522 U.S. 520, 1998) 
  • Alaska Native allotments and restricted Alaska Native Townsite lots may be Indian country 
  • Public Law 280 which extends state jurisdiction into Indian country has little effect in Alaska because there is a scarcity of Indian country 
  • We also know that Alaska tribes have considerable jurisdiction even without Indian country based on maintaining internal tribal affairs and protecting tribal members (John v. Baker, 982 P.2d 738, AK 1999)