In The Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided

By in Civil Rights on February 3, 2013

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Now in paperback, a vivid account of ten Supreme Court cases that changed the fate of Native Americans, providing the contemporary historical and political context of each case, and explaining how the decisions have adversely affected the cultural survival of Native people to this day.

Walter R. Echo-Hawk is of counsel to the Crowe and Dunlevy law firm of Oklahoma. As a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund for thirty-five years, he represented tribes and Native Americans on significant legal issues during the modern era of federal Indian law. He is a prolific writer whose books include Battlefields and Burial Grounds.

2 thoughts on “In The Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided

  1. James Botsford
    5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever, January 18, 2011
    James Botsford


    By James Botsford

    Finally someone has written a book that shines a light into the dark corners of the Supreme Court’s thievery of the rights of Native America. Did you ever wonder by what quiet sleight-of-hand huge dimensions of the inherent rights and cultures of Native people disappeared or were radically reduced? Turns out some of the worst damage ever done to the original people came from the highest level of the judicial branch… the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who historically have enjoyed (and cultivated) the perception that they are objective, neutral and above the fray of politics and ideology. Oh, if only it were true.

    The book is In the Courts of the Conqueror, The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided. And this book isn’t written by just any old someone. It was painstakingly researched and written by Walter Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) who Vine Deloria Jr. once referred to as “the best Indian law attorney in America.” Echo-Hawk earned his chops as a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund for 35 years where he was personally involved in many of the biggest Indian rights issues of our time.

    Echo-Hawk sets the bar high when it comes to intellectual honesty, cultural values and the ethics of legal analysis. From that perspective he walks us through what he believes are the ten worst Indian law cases ever decided. Scholars and activists will quibble over a few of his top ten (or is it bottom ten?), but they’ll risk missing the bigger point, which is the devastation of these decisions as they change the course of history.

    Echo-Hawk could’ve selected 20 such cases, but as it is this book weighs in at a hefty 470 pages, not counting notes. You’ll get your money’s worth out of this one. The book looks thoughtfully at the context and circumstances from which these cases emerge and then gives a careful assessment of how the high court turns phrases and facts in such a way as to devastate the cultural integrity of Indian Country… well beyond the implications of the specific question before them.

    To be fair one has to concede that the Court could not in all instances anticipate the scope of damage it inflicted, but as Echo-Hawk points out with clear reasoned logic there was no law or legal necessity that compelled the damage done by their decisions. In other cases, the case is solidly made that the Court is fully aware of the consequences of its decisions and actually manipulates facts and law to inflict those negative consequences anyway in order to protect other interests.

    But perhaps the highest value of this thought provoking book is its intriguing analysis of what we might do to restore dignity to the legal relationship between the United States and the indigenous cultures and governments that share this country.

    Is the First Amendment of any use at all to Indian people, or is it a danger to their survival? Is there any realistic hope that the U.S. will self-correct in Indian rights in a dignified way? Does the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People offer any realistic hope? If so, how could that come to be?
    These are the issues and discussions that make this book so uniquely valuable. There is a long conversation that must happen, and Echo-Hawk knows it from the inside. That’s why he has given us this truly important and urgent book, graciously written, as he winds down his career, to further us into that long conversation with a balanced historical assessment so that we, like he, can make this world better than the way we found it.

    (The book is published by Fulcrum Publishing, 2010. James Botsford is an Indian rights attorney in Wisconsin who has co-counseled with Echo-Hawk numerous times in the past quarter century.)

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  2. 2
    1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    White Man’s Burden, January 16, 2012

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    White Mans burden?

    By: Robert A. Yingst

    It is difficult to read In the Courts of the Conqueror; The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided, without being conflicted, especially if you are white. Nevertheless, whether you are Indian, black or white you will be challenged if you read this book. I promise. Having been a white civil rights lawyer in what the author calls the Courts of the Conqueror, I found myself looking at Indian Country in a way which was both enlightening and promising, in spite of being constantly reminded of what the author calls the “darker side of Indian Law.”
    Attorney Walter R. Echo-Hawk gives lawyers especially, a challenging path as he asks the question – What if it is really true that the bundle of rights we have fought for through the 5th and 14th amendments in the U.S. Constitution were never intended by the “founders” to be applied to Native Americans?
    Of the 10 worst cases, Echo-Hawk cites one case in particular for repudiation and rejection from future influence in the law – Johnson v. M’Intosh. A case which continues to define the contours of Indian Law. In 1955 the Supreme Court relying on M’Intosh in Tee-Hit-Ton v. United States takes it as a given that “savage tribes of the continent” were deprived of their land for “trinkets” by the “conqueror’s will”.
    Johnson v. M’Intosh will live on to cause repeated wrongs in Indian Law unless this case is overturned and prevented from carrying future influence argues the the author. It must be overruled in the same way that Plessy v. Ferguson met its demise in Brown v. Board of Education, when segregation was rejected by the Supreme Court, says Echo-Hawk.
    The author’s approach in describing how we got to this point is artful and interesting to read. It may be that some will chafe as he takes us through some awful times and places to show us that phrases like, “water under the bridge” are not enough to put this past behind us in any responsible way without addressing in the court.
    The application of the First Amendment in Native American cases is one example he uses to argue that the Supreme Court does not really deal with Native American religion as religion. The Rehnquist Court was “not up to this task” he says and urges that Lyng v Northwest Indian Cemetery Association must be overturned. The high court failed to protect Indian holy places and produced a “cruelly surreal result” when it pronounced in the words of dissenting Justice Brennan: “Government action that will virtually destroy a religion is nevertheless deemed not to `burden’ that religion.” Lying is still the law of the land.
    Echo-Hawk offers 8 specific reforms as he calls for a new generation of “legal warriors” who have the courage to “..row against the tide of prejudice, racism, dispossession, and oppression of vulnerable minorities.”
    Robert A. Yingst is a civil rights lawyer from Abrams, Wisconsin

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