Major Crimes Act

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The Major Crimes Act (U.S. Statutes at Large, 23:385)[1] is a law passed by the United States Congress in 1885. It places 7 major crimes under federal jurisdiction if they are committed by a Native American against another Native American in Native territory.

The crimes which now fell under federal jurisdiction were:

  • Murder
  • Manslaughter
  • Rape
  • Assault with intent to commit murder
  • Arson
  • Burglary
  • Larceny[2]

The act was passed in response to the Supreme Court of the United States's affirmation of tribal sovereignty in their ruling in Ex parte Crow Dog (109 U.S. 556 (1883)), wherein they overturned the federal court conviction of Brule Lakota sub-chief Crow Dog, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of principal chief Spotted Tail on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in Dakota Territory.[3] The Court reasoned that the ability of the tribe to deal with such an offense was an attribute of tribal sovereignty that had not been specifically abrogated by an act of Congress.

The Major Crimes Act reduced the internal sovereignty of native tribes by removing their ability to try and to punish serious offenders in Indian country. The theory underlying it was that Indian tribes were not competent to deal with serious issues of crime and punishment.[4] The constitutionality of the Major Crimes Act was upheld in United States v. Kagama (118 U.S. 375 (1886)), a case in which two Indians were prosecuted for killing another Indian on a reservation. While the Court agreed that the prosecution of major crimes did not fall within Congress's power to regulate commerce with the Indian tribes, it ruled that the trust relationship between the federal government and the tribes conferred on Congress both the duty and the power to regulate tribal affairs.[3]


  1. ^ U.S. Statutes at Large Vol. 23, Chap. 341, (PDF).
  2. ^ Prucha, Francis (1975). Francis Paul Prucha, ed. Documents of United States Indian Policy (3rd ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 166. 
  3. ^ a b Prucha
  4. ^ Prygoski, Philip J. "From Marshall to Marshall The Supreme Court's changing stance on tribal sovereignty".