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American Indians and Alaska Natives - Treaties

Published: March 19, 2014
Fact Sheet
  • A treaty is a contract between nations.
  • Nearly four hundred treaties were signed between Indian tribes and the U.S. until 1871 when Congress passed a law (25 U.S.C. 71) that prohibited the federal government from entering into additional treaties with the Indian tribes.  This law did not repeal any existing treaties stating, “no obligation of any treaty . . . shall be hereby invalidated or impaired.”
  • The Supreme Court held, in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903), that treaties with Indian tribes may be abrogated (broken) by federal law and Congress has abrogated many Indian treaties in this fashion.
  • The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that Congress may not deprive anyone of “private property  . . .without just compensation.”  The Supreme Court has held Indian treaty rights are a form of private property protected by the Just Compensation Clause.  Therefore, although Congress may abrogate an Indian treaty, it must adequately compensate a tribe for the value of any rights or property that are lost. See Shoshone Tribe v. U.S. (1937), Menominee Tribe v. U.S. (1968).
  • It is important to note that money often provides little compensation to people who have lost their homes and sacred lands.  For example, the Supreme Court awarded the Sioux Tribe more than $100 million in compensation for the loss of the Black Hills, their priceless sacred lands, which had been guaranteed to them in a treaty.
  • A federal agency may not abrogate an Indian treaty without specific congressional authorization.
  • States may not abrogate Indian treaty rights.
  • Existing Indian treaties have the same force and effect as federal statutes such that a violation of an Indian treaty is a violation of federal law.