Indian Claims Commission

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The Indian Claims Commission was a judicial panel for relations between the United States Federal Government and Native American tribes. It was established in 1946 by the United States Congress to hear claims of Indian tribes against the United States.[1] The commission was conceived as way to thank Native America for its unprecedented service in World War II and as a way to relieve the anxiety and resentment caused by America’s history of colonization of Indigenous peoples. The Commission created a process for tribes to address their grievances against the United States, and offered monetary compensation for territory lost as a result of broken federal treaties. However, by accepting the government's monetary offer, the aggrieved tribe abdicated any right to raise their claim again in the future, and on occasion gave up their federal status as a tribe after accepting compensation.

Anthropologists, historians and legalists as well as government officials were the dominant researchers, advocates and legal counsel for the plaintiff tribes and the defendant federal government. Anthropological research conducted for the Commission led towards the foundation of the American Society for Ethnohistory (ASE), when the research and historical reports compiled in evidence for Native American claims was first amassed in 1954 at the inaugural Ohio Valley Historic Indian Conference, the predecessor organization later renamed as the ASE. A collection of the studies was published in the series "American Indian Ethnohistory", by Garland Publishing, in 1974. The methodology and theory of ethnohistorical research in general traces back to the work done by anthropologists and other scholars on claims before the Commission.[2] The Commission also encouraged many neglected Indian groups in Southeast, the Northeast and California to create tribal organizations in order to pursue land claims. In particular, the 1946 act allowed any "identifiable" group of native descendants to bring a cause of action without regard to their federal recognition status. Tribes such as the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama trace their modern federal status to the efforts of Chief Calvin McGhee and his 1950s work with the Indian Claims Commission. Indian land claims, in fact, were one of the key reasons the Bureau of Indian Affairs established its Federal Acknowledgment Process in 1978. The Commission was adjourned in 1978 by Public Law 94-465,[3] which terminated the Commission and transferred its pending docket of 170 cases to the United States Court of Claims on September 30, 1978. By the time of the Commission's final report, it had awarded $818,172,606.64 in judgments and had completed 546 dockets.[4]

Land claims[edit]

Land was the dominant concern of the litigation by tribes before the Indian Claims Commission (ICC). The statutory authority did not permit this tribunal granting or restoring land to the tribes, but only awarding money based upon a net acreage figure of lost lands times the monetary market value of an acre at the time of taking. This limitation on the authority of the ICC rankled in the minds of many tribal peoples—e. g., the Pit River Indians of northern California, and the Teton and Lakota of the Black Hills, South Dakota. In a few instances, by way of settlement acts, tribes gained some monetary funds to buy acreage (as with the Penobscot and Passamoddy of Maine and the Catawba of the Carolinas). Special acts on occasion did restore some acreage as with the Havasupai at the Grand Canyon.[5]

Researchers in preparing expert testimony for litigation brought by the tribes as plainiffs or for the defense by the U. S. government explored all forms of data, including the earliest possible maps of original title—i. e., native or indigenous—territory and the cartographic presentations based upon treaties, statutes, and executive orders—generally identified as recognized title. In most cases, recognized title lands could be more easily demonstrated in litigation, while native territory depended upon Indian informants, explorers, trappers, military personnel, missionaries and early field ethnographers. Scholars sought to reconstruct native ecology in terms of food supply and other resources of the environment. In this way, some mappable notion of original territory could be gained. As the Final Report of the ICC revealed, compromises over territorial parcels led to rejecting some acreage that had been utilized by more than one tribe.[6]

The briefs, testimonies, quantum data, findings, and decisions were published in the 1970s in a multiple series of microfiche by Clearwater Publishing, Co., NY, which publisher was sold to CIS, then to Nexis/Lexis. Garland Publishing, NY, also in the 1970s, published some two hundred books containing some but not all of the materials pertaining to the claims cases.[7]


  1. ^ Act of August 13, 1946, ch. 959, 60 Stat. 1049
  2. ^ See "Introduction" to Shoemaker (2002), vii–ix.
  3. ^ 90 Stat. 1990
  4. ^ United States Indian Claims Commission, August 13, 1946-September 30, 1978: Final Report. 1979. p. 125. LCCN 79602155. 
  5. ^ Martin, 1985
  6. ^ ICC, 1978; visit online map, see link below
  7. ^ Sutton, ed., 1985: 399–401


  • Ward Churchill, Charades, Anyone? The Indian Claims Commission in Context, 24 Am. Indian Culture & Res. J. 43 (2000).
  • Richard Hughes, Can the Trustee Be Sued for Its Breach? The Sad Saga of United States v. Mitchell, 26 S.D. L. Rev. 447 (1981).
  • Harvey D. Rosenthal, Their Day in Court: A History of the Indian Claims Commission (1990). ISBN 0-8240-0028-5.
  • Nancy Shoemaker, Clearing a Path: Theorizing the Past in Native American Studies (2002). ISBN 0-415-92674-2.
  • E.B. Smith, Indian Tribal Claims: Decidedin the Court of Claims of the United States, Briefed and Compiled to June 30, 1947 (1976).
  • Imre Sutton (ed.), Irredeemable America: The Indians’ Estate and Land Claims ( 1985).
    • John F. Martin, From Judgment to Land Restoration: the Havasupai Claims Case.
  • Imre Sutton, Land Claims, in Native America in the Twentieth Century, An Encyclopedia 303-10 (Mary B. Davis ed., 1994) (NY: Garland Publishing Co.)
  • Imre Sutton (ed.), The Continuing Saga of Indian Land Claims symposium, 24 Am. Indian Culture & Res. J. 120 (2000).
  • Glen A. Wilkinson, Indian Tribal Claims Before the Court of Claims, 55 Geo. L.J. 511 (1966).
  • Mark Edwin Miller, Forgotten Tribes: Unrecognized Indians and the Federal Acknowledgment Process (2004).

External links[edit]