Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Indian Country Definition:

(USA) Land within an Indian reservation and all such other dependent Indian territories, and all land acquired by Indians in which tribal and federal laws normally apply and state laws do not.

Related Terms: Dependent Indian Community, Reserve

In the Supreme Court of the United States, 1933, Justice Van Devanter recognized that several legal terms were being used in relevant statutes to refer, generally, to lands that may belong to Indians. His words in US v Chavez were as follows:

"Indian country was intended to include any unceded lands owned or occupied by an Indian nation or tribe of Indians...."

The basic source in law for this legal term is now statutory as Title 18 of the United States Code, Chapter 53, §1151 defines the territory to which the Code then defines a variety of specific offences (such as taxation, liquor and hunting laws):

Indian country, as used in this chapter, means (a) all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation, (b) all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a state, and (c) all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same."

Indian country entry signIn US v Papakee, Justice Reade of the United States District Court (Iowa) attempted to summarize the statute by writing:

"[A] crime occurs in Indian country if it occurs on (1) an Indian reservation, (2) a dependent Indian community or (3) an Indian allotment....

"Land is Indian country if it is part of (1) an Indian reservation, (2) a dependent Indian community or (3) an Indian allotment."

In the American encyclopedia of law, the Corpus Juris Secundum, the authors suggested this summary of the law (in the title Indians) and relying on US v South Dakota (1981) and Indian Country USA Inc. v. Oklahoma (1987):

"In determining whether land constitutes Indian country, the focus is on what the land is now rather than on what it may become in the future.

"Once Congress has set lands apart as Indian country, they remain so until Congress divests them of that character.

"Indian lands need not be formally designated as a reservation in order to constitute Indian country."

Indian Reservation

In J&M Aircraft, Justice Eldridge of the Court of Appeals of Georgia remarked, at Footnote #2 of his opinion:

"Any tract of land set apart as an Indian reservation is Indian Country."

But the fact that land is not part of an Indian reservation is not determinative if that land qualifies as Indian country as dependent Indian community.

In US v Papakee, Chief Justice Reade of the United States District Court (Iowa) added:

"The Supreme Court1 has observed that Congress has defined Indian country broadly to include formal and informal reservations. In other words, the test for determining whether land is Indian country does not turn upon whether that land is denominated reservation but whether the area has been validly set apart for the use of the Indians as such, under the superintendence of the Government."

Dependent Indian Community

See the Legal Definition of Dependent Indian Community.


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