“Legal Jurisdiction and the Struggle for Sovereignty in Early Indian Territory”

“Legal Jurisdiction and the Struggle for Sovereignty in Early Indian Territory”

Jacob F. Lee, Assistant Professor of History
During the 1830s and 1840s, the U.S. policy of Indian removal and the creation of Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma and Kansas forced diverse Indigenous nations to live as neighbors. Western nations found themselves confined to a portion of their former territory and living next to strangers and sometimes enemies whom the United States had expelled from their homelands in the East. Indigenous nations navigated these new relationships, in part, by negotiating procedures for handling international crimes like murder, theft, and bootlegging. In 1843, five years after the Cherokee Trail of Tears, the Osage and Cherokee Nations formalized how they would handle such matters to prevent individual grievances from igniting broader conflict between the two nations. Additionally, this agreement was an attempt to keep the United States from further meddling in the governance of these nations. During this era, the United States used its court system to insinuate itself in matters of jurisdiction—and, by extension, citizenship, and sovereignty—in Indian Territory. Examining these questions of legal jurisdiction sheds new light on the strategies Indigenous nations used to defend their sovereignty in this tumultuous era, as well as the efforts of the United States to exert control over Indian Territory.

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