Cherokee Nation v. Georgia - 101 –
An Analysis of Federal Indian Law “Ward-Guardian Relation”
Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) is the second case in the so-called “Marshall Trilogy” of decisions that form the foundation of “federal Indian law.” The case declared that Native nations are not independent. It said they are “domestic dependent nations” under US domination, “in a state of pupilage” to the US that resembles the relationship of “a ward to his guardian.”
Most readings of Cherokee Nation ignore the fact that the decision was based on the religious supremacy doctrine of “Christian discovery.” Marshall said the reason Native nations are not independent of the US is that “They occupy a territory to which we assert a title independent of their will.” That US claim of title to native lands was declared in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), the first case in the Marshall trilogy, on the basis of “Christian discovery.”
Many readings of Cherokee Nation try to find a silver lining in the decision. They say the “ward-guardian relationship”—which they usually rephrase as the “trust relationship”—means the US made a commitment to “protect” Native nations. They forget the fact that the decision refused to protect the Cherokee Nation against an invasion by the State of Georgia.
Despite the fact that the notion of “trust relationship” represents a statement of US domination over Native nations, it is a frequent phrase in contemporary federal Indian law, always used in its supposedly “protective” way. This usage persists even in the face of repeated statements by the US Supreme Court that the “trust relationship” has no teeth because the “guardian” gets to decide what is best for the “ward.”