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Timeline / Defining Rights and Responsibilities / 1832: Supreme Court rules U.S. must treat tribes as nations

1832: Supreme Court rules U.S. must treat tribes as nations

The third of three court cases (the “Marshall Trilogy”) that become the foundation of American Indian law is decided. Samuel Worcester, a white missionary living on Cherokee lands, brings a suit to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Cherokee Nation. The state of Georgia had demanded that Worcester obtain a state license to live on Cherokee land. Chief Justice John Marshall rules for the Cherokee, finding that the U.S. is legally bound to treat the tribes “as nations, respect their rights, and manifest a firm purpose to afford that protection which treaties stipulate.”

“Indian nations had always been considered as distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original natural rights, as the undisputed possessors of the soil ... The very term nation so generally applied to them, means ‘a people distinct from others.’” —U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515, 561 (1832). Other cases in the “Marshall Trilogy” are Johnson v. McIntosh (1823) and Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831).

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