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American Indians and Alaska Natives - The Trust Responsibility

Published: March 19, 2014
Fact Sheet
  • The ‘trust responsibility’ is a legal principle that the Supreme Court noted in United States v. Mitchell (1983) is “the undisputed existence of a general trust relationship between the United States and the Indian people.”  This relationship is one of the most significant and motivating concepts in federal Indian law.
  • The Supreme Court first recognized the existence of a federal-Indian trust relationship in its early cases interpreting Indian treaties.  Between 1787 and 1871, the U.S. entered into nearly four hundred treaties with Indian tribes.  Generally, in these treaties, the U.S. obtained the land it wanted from the tribes, and in return, the U.S. set aside other reservation lands for those tribes and guaranteed that the federal government would respect the sovereignty of the tribes, would protect the tribes, and would provide for the well-being of the tribes.
  • The Supreme Court has held that treaties created a special relationship between tribes and the federal government that obligates the government to keep its end of the bargain given that tribes have kept theirs.  This principle, that the government has a duty to keep its word and fulfill its treaty commitments is known as the doctrine of trust responsibility. See, e.g.,  Seminole Nation v. U.S. (1942), and U.S. v. Mason (1973), and Morton v Mancari (1974).
  • The trust doctrine is a source of federal responsibility to Indians requiring the federal government to support tribal self-government and economic  prosperity, duties that stem from the government’s treaty guarantees to protect Indian tribes and respect their sovereignty. In 1977, the Senate report of the American Indian Policy Review Commission expressed the trust obligation as follows:

The purpose behind the trust doctrine is and always has been to ensure the survival and welfare of Indian tribes and people.  This includes an obligation to provide those services required to protect and enhance tribal lands, resources, and self-government, and also includes those economic and social programs which are necessary to raise the standard of living and social well-being of the Indian people to a level comparable to the non-Indian society.

  • A second aspect of the trust responsibility arises from the fact that Congress, primarily through legislation, has placed most tribal land and other property under the control of federal agencies to the extent that virtually everything a tribe may wish to do with its land must be approved by the federal government.  Courts have recognized that when Congress delegates to federal officials the power to control or manage tribal land, their actions with respect to those resources must be “judged by the most exacting fiduciary standards.” Seminole Nation v. U.S. (1942)