THE FEDERAL TRUST RELATIONSHIP AND THE INTERPRETATION OF AMERICAN INDIAN LAWS
What is the federal trust relationship with American Indians?
The United States Supreme Court has established a federal trust relationship between the federal government and American Indian people. The trust relationship provides that any treaties, agreements, laws, or administrative decisions are presumed to benefit American Indians.(35)
Are there special rules for interpretation of federal laws and treaties affecting American Indians?
Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court has developed a set of rules for interpreting treaties, agreements, laws, or administrative decisions with American Indians. The rules were first developed in cases involving treaties and are commonly referred to as the "canons of construction" for American Indian Law. The rules are:
(1) Treaties are construed as the American Indians understood them;(36)
(2) Doubts concerning the meaning of treaties are resolved in favor of the American Indians,(37) and;
(3) Explicit language or clear Congressional intent is required to abrogate American Indian Treaty rights.(38)
The court has also held repeatedly that these "canons" cannot rewrite the "plan language" of treaties or other enactments. Obviously, that is one of the reasons so many of these issues have landed in the courts.
Can Congress abrogate treaty provisions and other laws affecting American Indians without violating the trust relationship?
Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Congress can unilaterally abrogate treaty provisions even to the point of terminating the trust relationship.(39) However, because of the trust relationship between the federal government and the American Indian people, the abrogation of treaty provisions is not taken lightly. (40) For Congress to abrogate the treaty rights of American Indians the intent of the language must be clear and convincing. Congressional abrogation of treaty rights can also, in some circumstances, trigger federal liability for "just compensation" under the fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.