118 U.S. 375 (1886), argued 2 Mar. 1886, decided 10 May 1886 by vote of 9 to o; Miller for the Court. Kagama applied the broad principles governing Indian relations that Chief Justice John Marshall had articulated in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) to the question of whether a federal criminal statute specifically applicable to Indians was constitutional. The Court upheld the statute and its application.
In Ex parteCrow Dog (1883), the Court had held that tribal, not federal, law applied to criminal acts committed by an Indian in Indian country. In response, Congress enacted the “Major Crimes Act” as part of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1885, which extended the jurisdiction of federal courts to seven specified crimes, including murder and manslaughter committed by one Indian against another in Indian country. Applying Worcester in the Kagama case, the Court unanimously held that protection of Indians constituted a national obligation and thus sustained the power of Congress to legislate for Indians on reservations. In obiter dictum, Justice Samuel F. Miller added that state courts lacked jurisdiction over crimes committed by Indians on reservations because federal power preempted state authority. He added that the states had historically been the Indians’ “deadliest enemies” (p. 384).
The Kagama Court relied on Marshall's analogy to the common-law guardian-ward relationship as a figure explaining federal authority over Indian affairs. But the federal-Indian relationship derives not from common law but from the Constitution's grant of power to the federal government over Indian relations. Although that power is broad, Indians may claim constitutional protection in their dealings with the federal government. Courts continue to affirm the Worcester principles of self government within tribal territory.
Rennard J. Strickland