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Public Law 280

By Alicianna Martinez

            Native American tribal governments are sovereign, self-governing entities. They have the to power to determine their own governance structures, pass laws, and enforce laws through police departments and tribal courts.[1] The ability to self-govern is essential for tribal communities to continue to protect their cultures and identities.[2] Although, one major obstacle associated with tribal self-governance is the impact that federal legislation has on Tribes.[3] The passage of Public Law 280 is a primary example of how impactful federal legislation is in relation to Tribes.

            Public Law 83-280 was the 280th Public Law enacted by the 83rd Congress in 1953.[4]

On the reservations to which it applied, it took away the federal government’s authority to prosecute Indian Country crimes based on 18 USC 1152 (the Indian Country General Crimes Act) and 18 USC 1153 (the Major Crimes Act).  Second, it authorized the states of Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin to prosecute most crimes that occurred in Indian country.[5]

This law was a large part of the Termination-era legislation.[6] The legislation initially included five states–Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oregon, and California.[7] Alaska received statehood in 1959 and adopted Public Law 280.[8] Other states also later adopted elements of the legislation.[9] Public Law 280 altered the allocation of criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country.[10] Because of Public Law 280, federal criminal jurisdiction became limited and state jurisdiction was expanded in the reservations in the six named states.[11]

            Before the enactment of Public Law 280, the federal government, and Indian Country shared jurisdiction over several civil and criminal matters involving Indians in Indian Country.[12]  The states had no jurisdiction over Indians in Indian Country.[13] The enactment of Public Law 280 allowed for the states to gain control over crimes in Indian Country involving Indian perpetrators and or victims.[14] Indian Nations subsequently lost control over several criminal and civil matters within Indian Country.[15]

            Both the states and Indian Nations found Public Law 280 to be concerning.[16] The legislation causes immense jurisdictional confusion.[17] One of the biggest issues with jurisdictional confusion is the disagreements that arise “concerning the scope of powers given to the states and the methods of assuming that power.”[18] This can create difficulties in litigation because it is essential for litigants to be familiar and understand whether the state or tribe has jurisdiction. It is necessary to know which entity has jurisdiction for a court to hear and decide a case.

            Indian Nations impacted by Public Law 280 are opposed mostly due to the process of implementing this legislation. [19] Public Law 280 did not require the consent from the impacted Indian Nations and did not require a consultation with the Impacted Indian Nations.[20] The enactment of Public Law 280 constituted a complete failure to recognize tribal sovereignty and tribal self-determination.[21] Additionally, states are dissatisfied with Public Law 280 because the Act fails to provide federal funding to states, so they are unable to finance it.[22]

            Ultimately, the passage of Public Law 280 immensely altered tribes and their ability to self-govern. Prior to Public Law 280, criminal jurisdiction was mostly shared between federal and tribal governments. There was little interference from state governments. Now, state governments have gained more power. Public Law 280 violates tribal sovereignty by giving states criminal jurisdiction.


[1],Tribal Governance, National Congress of American Indians (last visited May 7, 2022), https://www.ncai.org/policy-issues/tribal-governance.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Jerry Gardner and Ada Pecos Melton, Public Law 280: Issues and Concerns for Victims of Crime in Indian Country, Tribal Court Clearinghouse (last visited May 7, 2022), http://www.tribal-institute.org/articles/gardner1.htm#2.

[5] The United States Attorney’s Office District of Minnesota, Frequently Asked Questions about Public Law 83-280, United States Department of Justice (last visited May 7, 2022), https://www.justice.gov/usao-mn/Public-Law%2083-280.

[6] Eugene Sommers, Matthew Fletcher & Tadd Johnson, It’s Time to End Public Law 280, Native Governance Center (last visited May 7, 2022), https://nativegov.org/news/its-time-to-end-public-law-280/.

[7]  Id.

[8]  Id.

[9]  Id.

[10] Gardner and Melton, Supra note 4.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13]  Id.

[14]  Id.

[15]  Id.

[16]  Id.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Id.

[19]  Id.

[20] Id.

[21]  Id.

[22]  Id.

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By Tribal Law Journal Blog

The Tribal Law Journal was established in fall 1998 for the purpose of promoting indigenous self-determination by facilitating discussion of the internal law of the world’s indigenous nations. The internal law of indigenous nations encompasses traditional law, western law adopted by indigenous nations, and a blend of western and indigenous law. Underscoring this purpose is the recognition that traditional law is a source of law.

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