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The issue in the Brackeen case is whether the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is constitutional. Some observers are fearful the Supreme Court will use the case to attack the notion of “tribal sovereignty” by applying “race theory” to characterize Indigenous peoples, in contrast to an approach that sees Indigenous peoples as “political” entities quasi-separate from the US. A racial approach would collapse Native peoples into groups of Native persons within the US polity.

The effort to bring about a collapse of Indigenous independent existence has been long underway. Indeed, this effort begins with the first Supreme Court decisions in the field — the so-called “Marshall trilogy,” named after the chief justice who authored the opinions. A doctrinal matrix of federal anti-Indian law domination was laid down in these three early nineteenth-century cases.

The decisions may be restated succinctly: In Johnson v. McIntosh, the court adopted the fifteenth-century doctrine of “Christian discovery” and declared that the United States holds title to all Native lands. It said that the Natives themselves are merely occupants. In Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia, the court built on the Johnson decision to define Native Nations as “wards” under the control of a US “guardian”. It denied that Native Nations have an international status. In Worcester v. Georgia, the court capped the previous two decisions with an assertion that the federal government has supreme power vis-a-vis the states over Native lands and peoples. It defined a domain of “internal affairs” of Native nations for “their self-government so far as respected themselves only” under “exclusive” federal control of lands.

These three decisions continue to be cited in “federal Indian law” cases at all levels of the U.S. judicial system. Their anti-Indian orientations are, however, submerged in widespread wishful thinking that John Marshall somehow crafted a set of doctrines to “protect” Indigenous peoples against the US by declaring the US a “trustee” for them. As I make clear inmy recent book:Federal Anti-Indian Law: The Legal Entrapment of Indigenous Peoples (Praeger – ABC-CLIO, 2002), the so-called “trust doctrine” is a perversion of normal trust law. It operates as a massive “exception” to the ordinary rules governing trust relationships. “Exception” in fact characterizes all the doctrines in the field.

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Peter d’Errico, "Brackeen v. Haaland, the Indian Child Welfare Act case now in the Supreme Court: Seen in Perspective," Doctrine of Discovery Project (7 November 2022), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/link/brackeen-v-holland/.

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