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American Indian Constitutions

The following is a guest post by Jennifer Gonzalez, a Digital Library Technician in the Law Library’s Digital Resources Division.

In celebration of Native American History Month, we have just added 428 Native American documents containing constitutions, charters, and acts from the years 1830 to 1960 to Law.gov.   The collection contains two types of material: constitutions from the 1800s produced by the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek; and constitutions and charters drafted after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.  The latter includes laws produced by the Office of Indian Affairs of the United States Department of the Interior.  These materials are divided by region based on the new KI class designations: Arctic-AlaskaUS-Northeast AtlanticUS-North CentralUS-New SouthwestUS-Pacific Northwest, and US-South.

Creek Constitution

Creek Constitution

The oldest part of the collection has some of the most interesting documents and can be found mostly in the US-South region. Some of these are in the native language of the Native Americans, for example, CreekChoctaw, and Cherokee.

Other documents give a snapshot of what life was like in the community at that time. The Laws of the Cherokee Nation, for example, contains population statistics tables on districts in the Cherokee nation. It has some categories you might expect for 1824 like age, slaves, gender, and race, but also shows the numbers of blacksmith shops, ferries, public roads, goats, sheep, horses, looms, ploughs, and wagons.

The Constitution and Laws of the Muskogee Nation explains how debts are to be collected and rewards are to be granted for the apprehension of criminals.  Some interesting criminal laws include laws against selling goods on Sunday, opening sealed letters, and destroying pecan trees.

General Laws of the Legislature of the Chickasaw Nation 1867, 1868, 1869 & 1870 has the debt of the Chickasaw Nation in September of 1867, the monthly pay of the militia, and the salaries of officers of the Chickasaw Nation. Interestingly, Senators and Representatives were paid the same daily rate as draftsman, clerks, and interpreters ($6 per day).

Article XIV of The Constitution and Laws of the Osage Nation demonstrates the separation between citizens of the United States and citizens of the Osage Nation. The article details how employing or renting to a United States citizen required a permit from the Osage Council, approval by the Indian Office at Washington, a fee of $1 per month, and a hefty fine if these rules were not followed.

Finally, the Ordinances of the Town of Tahlequah can answer any questions you may have about what was and wasn’t legal in the capital of the Cherokee Nation in 1890.  For instance, Ordinance XXIII makes it unlawful for “boys or other persons” to have and use a bean-shooter, disturb the birds, and shoot or explode fire-crackers “except upon the Fourth of July, and Christmas and New Year’s Days.” On their first offense, boys under 14 would be reported to their parents. Thereafter (and for everyone else) the penalty was between $1 and $5. That may seem harsh, but it is only half of the penalty of carrying a policeman’s whistle without the proper authority! (Ordinance XXIX).

Newer documents in the collection include those signed after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.  Most of the Arctic-Alaska constitutions were signed by native villages, communities, or associations like ShaktoolikPoint HopeTetlin, and Napakiak, while other regions used the band, tribe or nation name like the Kickapoo tribe in the North Central region, the Southern Ute tribe in the New Southwest region, and the Skokomish Indian tribe in the Pacific Northwest region.

What interesting documents can you find?

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