Teaching About the Constitutional Origins of Native American Tribal Sovereignty


American history textbooks typically treat the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Trail of Tears and may even briefly mention Worcester v. Georgia. Behind this landmark 1832 case is a dramatic and significant story about borders--territorial, racial, legal, and constitutional--and sovereignty. The decision continues to have implications for tribal sovereignty today, as it has throughout much of American history.

Session Resources

The Constitutional Origins of Native American Tribal Sovereignty Presentation

Jeremiah Evarts’ “Essay No. 1” from “Essays on the Present Crisis in the Condition of the American Indians” (1829)

Indian Removal Act (1830)

An act to prevent the exercise of assumed and arbitrary power, by all persons, under pretext of authority from the Cherokee Indians and their laws, and to prevent white persons from residing within that part of the chartered limits of Georgia occupied by the Cherokee Indians, and to provide a guard for the protection of the gold mines, and to enforce the laws of the state within the aforesaid territory (1830)

Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (excerpt) (1830)

Worcester v. Georgia (excerpt) (1832)

Executive Order 13175—Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments (2000)

Timeline of Native American Tribal Sovereignty

Worcester v. Georgia summary from New Georgia Encyclopedia

Understanding U.S. Supreme Court Opinions

Additional Resources

Primary Sources

Andrew Jackson’s Letter to the Cherokee (1835)
President Andrew Jackson’s letter to the Cherokee in 1835, concerning Indian Removal.

Cherokee Nation
Official site of the Cherokee Nation in the United States. This is a treasure trove! Under the “About the Nation” tab, and “History,” there are links to historical accounts, maps, and texts of a variety of primary sources, including letters from Cherokee leaders and members of the American public regarding removal policies.

Cherokee Phoenix from Hunter Library
Searchable database of Cherokee Phoenix articles 1828-1834—specifically the time that The Cherokee Cases were unfolding. Database is maintained by Western Carolina University.

Constitution of the Cherokee Nation (1827)
Transcription of the 1827 Constitution of the Cherokee Nation, available at the Cherokee Phoenix archive at Western Carolina University. 

Evarts, Jeremiah, “Essays on the Present Crisis in the Condition of the American Indians; First Published in The National Intelligencer, Under the Signature of William Penn,” Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1829.
This book of essays informed lawyers for the Cherokee, such as William Wirt. Evarts was a member of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, like Samuel Worcester. 

Index of treaties between the United States and Native Americans
Digitization of Indian Affairs, Laws, and Treaties, by Charles Kappler, 1904 offered by the library at Oklahoma State University offers full texts of all treaties executed between the U.S. Government and Native American tribes. The index is sorted alphabetically by tribe.

Indian Removal Act (1830)
Portal from the Library of Congress offers high resolution scans of the Indian Removal Act, along with links to the Congressional record of debates on the policy. There are also links to other relevant Library of Congress holdings, including images.

Newspaper Article Index (Native American and Non-Native American papers)
Compilation of links to newspaper articles concerning Indian Removal policy in the United States. Organized chronologically, 1827-1855.

Worcester, Samuel High Resolution photo
Public domain photo of Samuel Worcester from the New Echota Historical Site.

Supreme Court Opinions

Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831)

Worcester v. Georgia (1832)

Secondary Sources

Banner, Stuart, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier, Belknap Press, 2007.

Ehle, John, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, Random House, 2011.

Fixico, Donald, ed., Treaties with American Indians: An Encyclopedia of Rights, Conflicts, and Sovereignty (3 vols.), ABC-CLIO, 2008.

Garrison, Tim Alan, The Legal Ideology of Removal: The Southern Judiciary and the Sovereignty of Native American Nations, University of Georgia Press, 2002.

_____, “Worcester v. Georgia (1832),” New Georgia Encyclopedia, a project of Georgia Humanities, April 3, 2016.

McLoughlin, William G., After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees’ Struggle for Sovereignty, 1839-1880, University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Norgren, Jill, The Cherokee Cases: Two Landmark Federal Decisions in the Fight for Sovereignty, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

Wilkins, David and Tsianina Lomawaima, Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Teaching Resources

President, Chief Justice, and the Cherokee Nation
Lesson produced by the Constitutional Rights Foundation that looks at Worcester v. Georgia and separation of powers issues that the case presents.

Removal of the Cherokee Nation (Middle School)
Lesson plan developed by The History Project at the University of California, Davis integrates primary source quotes from 26(!) different people involved with Indian Removal.