Determining the contours of the United States’ trust responsibilities to the various Indian tribes has been a path marked with inconsistencies, inequities, and enough complex legal reasoning to make one’s head spin. While it might have been hoped that United States v. Navajo Nation (Navajo II) would clear up some of the inconsistencies, it should be clear by this time that no such help is forthcoming. Rather this case continues in the tradition of a “malleability that has allowed the doctrine [of federal trust responsibility] to be repeatedly transformed over the years, leaving a conflicted legacy for tribes and their members.” On this analysis, the future decisions of the Supreme Court rest less on precedent and more on the individual actors involved and the social and historical contexts in which they act. This Note will attempt to add to the already large body of scholarly work examining the controversy at various stages of decision and argue that the case represents a continuation of principles iterated in the dissenting opinion of United States v. Mitchell (Mitchell II)
In 1993, the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit—Navajo Nation v. United States—alleging breach of fiduciary duties for actions taken by the Secretary of the Interior during the approval process for coal lease amendment negotiations between the tribe and Peabody Holding Company. A protracted legal battle began, ultimately requiring two Supreme Court opinions to finally resolve that the tribe’s claims for monetary relief lacked jurisdiction under statutory and case law provided by the Indian Tucker Act, United States v. Navajo Nation (Navajo I), United States v. Mitchell (Mitchell I), and Mitchell II. In one sense the Supreme Court’s original decision in 2003 in Navajo I “left no room” for a decision in favor of the tribe on remand. However, in another sense the Court’s decision failed to adequately address the importance (or even possibility) of government control over the tribe’s natural resources due to the Secretary of the Interior’s approval role in the lease amendment process unless the majority’s contention that control over tribal coal does not matter is taken seriously. If this is indeed the case, and control of tribal resources does not matter in claims alleging government mismanagement of tribal resources, then claims in the Mitchell II vein will be limited to those claims addressing the government’s management of tribal resources. These claims will be further restricted by the current trends in legislative and bureaucratic enactments purporting to enhance tribal self-determination while still leaving the government in a powerful approval role with respect to those resources. This Note examines the Supreme Court’s decision in Navajo II and evaluates the Court’s opinion in light of the previous “path-marking precedents” in Mitchell I and II. Part II provides background on the Indian Tucker Act, Mitchell I and II, and the entirety of the procedural and decisional history of Navajo II. Part III argues that the Court’s opinion in Navajo II represents at least a partial rejection of the reasoning of Mitchell II and shares some commonalities with the dissenting opinion in that case. Part III also addresses the possibility of government control of tribal resources through the Secretary of Interior’s approval role in lease amendments of this type, and it also discusses whether Mitchell II represents for this Court a decision that only extensive management of tribal resources can support Indian Tucker Act jurisdiction. Part IV concludes by arguing that once the case is placed in context, the decision represents a continuation of the judiciary’s conflicting holdings regarding tribal resources. However, these holdings amount to little more than political choices clothed in legal reasoning, and due to the large amount of money at stake, both for the government and for energy consumers in the region, the Court chose to turn a blind eye to the actual control inherent in an “approval only” role assumed by the government.
Tribal Self-Determination in Natural Resources: Management, Control, and Trust Responsibilities or the Lack Thereof in Navajo Nation v. United States, 129 S. Ct. 1547 (2009),
89 Neb. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol89/iss3/5