Williams v. Lee and the debate over Indian equality.

Author:Berger, Bethany R.

Williams v. Lee (1959) created a bridge between century-old affirmations of the immunity of Indian territories from state jurisdiction and the tribal self-determination policy of the twentieth century. It has been called the first case in the modern era of federal Indian law. Although no one has written a history of the case, it is generally assumed to be the product of a timeless and unquestioning struggle of Indian peoples for sovereignty. This Article, based on interviews with the still-living participants in the case and on examination of the congressional records, Navajo council minutes, and Supreme Court transcripts, records, and Justices' notes, reveals an unexpected complexity in both Indian and non-Indian contributions to the case and to the era in federal Indian policy in which it emerged.

This history shows that both Williams and the policy developments that surrounded it emerged from consensus about the need for Indian equality and equal opportunity in the twentieth century, but Indian and non-Indian debate whether equality meant full assimilation and termination of the special legal status of tribes or continued respect for the ability of Indian peoples to govern themselves. This Article makes this debate concrete through the story of the Williams family, for whom the state collection action and the resulting seizure of the family sheep herd struck at the heart of Navajo lifestyle and culture. The Article further connects Williams to the momentous debates over African-American integration generated with Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Cooper v. Aaron (1958). Ultimately, 1 argue, Williams v. Lee and the self-determination movement that followed it represent a choice by American Indians to insist that respect for tribal status was necessary to ensure Indian equality in the modern era. This history and its results provide an important lesson today as federal Indian policies are increasingly attacked as fundamentally inconsistent with fairness and equality.

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. EQUALITIES II. CONTESTS OVER INDIAN EQUALITY IN THE POSTWAR YEARS III. NAVAJO DEBATE AND TRANSFORMATION A. The Navajo Nation in the Wake of World War II B. 1949 Debates About State Jurisdiction C. Nation Building in Navajoland IV. WILLIAMS V. LEE AND THE FIGHT AGAINST STATE JURISDICTION A. The Dispute Emerges: Traders, Sheep Herds, and a Navajo Family B. State Court Proceedings C. Williams v. Lee in the Supreme Court V. THE AFTERMATH OF WILLIAMS V. LEE CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION

On November 20, 1958, while the Supreme Court was still reeling from the reaction to its decision in Cooper v. Aaron (1) ordering the Little Rock School District to continue the process of desegregation, the Justices heard arguments in an almost unnoticed case. Williams v. Lee, (2) an obscure collection action between a non-Indian trader and his Navajo customers on the isolated Navajo reservation, appeared to have little to do with the momentous debates over equality and integration absorbing the nation. Indeed, the claim of Paul and Lorena Williams that disputes arising on the reservation should be insulated from state jurisdiction might seem almost their antithesis, a demand that Navajos retain a separate legal status from the rest of America. But the case was the product of over a decade of debate, in the Navajo Nation and in Indian country as a whole, about the best way for American Indians to achieve equality and respect. The Williamses' victory was a product of the emerging consensus among Native people that self governing tribes had to be part of the answer. This Article reveals the crucial and complex role of Indian choices and actions in a foundational case in federal Indian law, and helps shed new light on debates about the status of Indian people today.

Williams v. Lee has been described as the first case in the modern era of federal Indian law. (3) It laid a legal foundation for the emerging tribal self-determination movement and created a core precedent for subsequent cases rebuffing state jurisdiction and protecting the integrity of tribal legal institutions. (4) When current tribal advocates bemoan the modern Supreme Court's departures from precedent, Williams is one of the cases to which they look. (5) But in the half century since it was decided, no one has written a history of the case. (6)

Williams is typically understood in terms of two common narratives in Indian law and policy. According to the first narrative, the case vindicates a timeless and unquestioning struggle by Native people for sovereignty. American Indians, in this narrative, have never considered whether continued separate status is the best course for their interests, but almost instinctually sought to maintain the "measured separatism" (7) that federal Indian law provides. The second narrative considers Williams to be an anomalous outlier of the Termination Policy that defined federal Indian law from the 1940s to the 1960s. This policy, aimed at ending the separate status of tribes and extending state jurisdiction over their lands, is generally seen as wholly anti-Indian and contrary to Indian wishes. How, in this period, could the Court have produced such a strong affirmation of tribal sovereignty?

The history recounted here, based on interviews with the still-living participants in the case and examination of congressional records, Navajo council minutes, and Supreme Court transcripts, records, and notes, reveals a complexity that challenges both narratives. This history shows both the era and the case itself to be the product of consensus about the need for Indian equality and equal opportunity in the twentieth century and also of debate inside and outside Indian country about what that equality would mean. It makes concrete the ways in which the state court action struck at the heart of the Navajo economy and culture, and why the Williams family fought so hard in this case. Finally, the history of Williams shows the ways in which the decision and the self-determination movement that followed it were the product of a deliberate choice to insist that respect for tribal status was necessary to ensure equal treatment and dignity in the modern era.

Williams and the debates leading to it emerged from a unique moment in time. For over a century, federal Indian policy had revolved around varying strategies for acquiring tribal land, ending tribal authority, and assimilating Indian people. In the 1930s and early 1940s, however, the Roosevelt Administration briefly embarked on an attempt to strengthen tribal governments. This effort reversed after World War II. Congress moved to withdraw responsibility for a number of Indian tribes, along with it recognition of their special legal status; attempted to extend state jurisdiction over many more tribes; and ultimately sought to assimilate all Indians into the broader polity. Although the period is now called the Termination Era, at the time it was described not as "termination" but as "emancipation," (8) something demanded by the inherent equality of Indian people, particularly in light of their celebrated service in the war.

There are good reasons to question whether some of these calls for Indian equality were anything more than self-serving rhetoric. (9) But termination measures were initially supported by a number of Indians and tribal leaders. (10) Veterans and defense-industry workers returned home to desperate poverty on reservations that seemed crushed more than ever by paternalistic federal bureaucracies. At least initially, many Native people wondered whether doing away with special tribal status altogether might be the only way to achieve dignity and a decent standard of living.

These tensions were fully present, even exaggerated, for the Navajo people. (11) In poverty and isolation as well as in military participation and pride, the Navajos equaled or surpassed any tribe in the country. Perhaps more than most tribes, the Navajo Nation had chafed under Bureau of Indian Affairs CBIA") domination during the New Deal era. In the 1940s, moreover, Navajos were justifiably dubious that the tribal council and courts were meaningful representatives of self-government--both had been initially created by the federal government as a means of achieving federal ends, and both were still heavily influenced by federal agents. (12) It is perhaps understandable, therefore, that in 1949 the Navajo Tribal Council actually voted to support a federal bill that would have extended state jurisdiction over the reservation, with the bill's proponents insisting that state jurisdiction was the best way to achieve full citizenship and equal dignity with other Americans. (13)

More surprising is that after the president vetoed the bill, the tribe began a process of tribal institution-building designed to strengthen the tribe against future assaults on its jurisdiction. (14) When Williams first arose in 1952, the council had no doubt that the tribe should assist the family as part of this battle. (15) As the case was being litigated, the council was devoting more and more tribal funds to its legal system and increasingly dictating the terms under which that system served. (16) In 1959, the year the Supreme Court awarded victory to Paul and Lorena Williams, the tribe formally took control of its courts from the federal government. (17)

Also concealed by the Court's opinion are the reasons why Williams struck at the heart of Navajo concerns about outside control. The central fact for the Williams family, and the chief concern of ordinary Navajos, is not mentioned in the decision: on filing the suit, Mr. Lee had part of their sheep herd seized as security against the eventual judgment. (18) Sheep were the economic mainstay of the Williams family and of most ordinary Navajos. (19) They were deeply connected to Navajo culture and domestic relations. (20) When the Apache County Sheriff took the sheep, it became a...

To continue reading