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Indigenous Law Research Strategies: Settlement Acts

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The following is a guest post by Louis Myers, the current Librarian-in-Residence at the Law Library of Congress. Louis has authored several blog posts for In Custodia Legis, including New Acquisition: The Trial of Governor Picton, A Case of Torture in Trinidad, Research Guides in Focus – Municipal Codes: A Beginner’s Guide, and Research Guides in Focus – Public International Law: A Beginner’s Guide.

In today’s post, we will look at a somewhat complex area of U.S. indigenous law: Native claims settlement acts. These laws provide the framework for American Indian tribes to regain title to historic tribal lands. While researching a claims act can seem daunting, we hope to provide you with resources and strategies that should help you navigate this area of law.

Historically, claims made by indigenous peoples against the federal government were brought in the United States Court of Claims (the name of this court was later changed to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims). In 1946, an act of Congress transferred jurisdiction over these claims to the Indian Claims Commission. The Indian Claims Commission settled claims through 1978 when a new law reassigned jurisdiction to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The Indian Claims Commission was somewhat hamstrung when it came to remedies; it could only administer judgments for monetary damages, not return lands to tribes.

Map of Eastern Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina
United States. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Geographic Data Service Center. Eastern Cherokee Reservation, North Carolina. 2003. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. //

For land claims, specific legislation from Congress was necessary, and it often involved federal agencies, like the Department of the Interior, the relevant state government, and, of course, the tribe. One of the first targeted settlement acts of this kind was the Alaskan Native Settlement Claims Act of 1971 (ANSCA). ANSCA provided, among other things, a process for Alaska Natives to receive land administered through regional native corporations, setting a new precedent for settlements moving forward.

The land claim settlement outlined below provides online resources that will be useful when researching the more detailed aspects of land claim settlements. You can find more information about relevant resources by checking out our collection of online research guides, which cover a variety of topics, including federal legislative history, case law, and state law.

Screen capture of text from the Congressional Record's History of Bills and Resolutions for H.R. 12860
Congressional Record, vol. 124, History of Bills and Resolutions, H.R. 12860.

You can use the Congressional Record or the U.S. Statutes-at-Large to identify settlement acts specific to an individual or group of Native American tribes. For example, you can use the History of Bills and Resolutions, usually found at the end of a Congressional Record volume, to search for the relevant tribe you would like to research. We performed a search for tribes in and around Rhode Island (specifically, the Narragansett) during the 95th Congress, and were able to ascertain from the History of Bills and Resolutions accompanying volume 124 of the Congressional Record that a settlement was voted upon in the House and Senate and later enacted as Pub. L. No. 95-395.

You can then use the text of the law as a finding aid for more information. For example, section 3(c) of Pub. L. No. 95-395 references the lawsuit that spurred the settlement agreement; section 3(g) identifies the federal agency responsible for administrating the settlement funds to the Narragansett Tribe. You can then use a free or subscription database to access court materials, and you can use the Federal Register to locate relevant agency documents.

Screen capture of text from the Rhode Island Indians Claims Settlement Act from the Statutes at Large
Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act, Pub. L. No. 95-395, 92 Stat. 813 (1978).

For example, we used a free online database to locate the relevant ruling from the Federal District Court in Narragansett Tribe v. Southern Rhode Island Development Co. This document provided us with a springboard for case law research related to the settlement. Moving on to the agency documents, we used the Government Publishing Office’s (GPO) online Federal Register Index to search for related entries. We then used GPO’s general Federal Register collection to find the relevant entry from the Department of the Interior related to the case at 44 Fed. Reg. 45261. Keep in mind that when researching these materials you may need to look to years before and after the year of the law’s passage. The notice in the Federal Register then pointed us to the last step in this particular analysis, identifying the Rhode Island law implementing the settlement and creating the framework for the Narragansett Tribe to administer the settlement.

Screen capture from the federal register entry document the Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act findings
44 Fed. Reg. 45261.

At this phase of your research, you can rely on the Law Library’s Guide to Law Online: U.S. States and Territories, to access Rhode Island laws. In this instance, the Narragansett Indian Land Management Corporation Act was codified in the Rhode Island General Laws §37-18. You can then cross-reference this series of legal actions to see how they fit with the federal recognition of the Narragansett Indian Tribe in 1983, and the subsequent transfer of the settlement lands to full tribal control.

Researching settlement acts can seem like an impossible task at first, but the many different tools and resources can make for a rewarding experience. It is also helpful to refer to the Bureau of Indian Affairs entry for the tribe you are researching to help get you started with an initial research roadmap. You can also visit the Indigenous Law Portal, which provides innumerable resources related to specific tribes. As always, we encourage researchers to reach out to us through our Ask-a-Librarian Service with any feedback and with further questions on how to perform this or any other kind of legal research.


  1. If you’re looking for some background information on a tribe that is maybe obscure, the introductory statements of tribe officials in House and Senate Hearings are invaluable. Thanks for this!

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