TThe nature of constitutions of Native Americans is a debated topic in American history, particularly as those constitutions played a role in the ‘legitimacy’ (or otherwise) of the settling of Native American lands. Here, Daniel Smith discusses Western colonial law, property rights, and the constitutions of Native Americans - and how the constitutions are seen to have altered with Western concepts of property rights.

You can read Daniel’s past articles on California in the US Civil War (here) and Medieval jesters (here).

Major Ridge, a leader of the Cherokee in the nineteenth century who was to play a major role in ceding Cherokee lands to European-American settlers.

Major Ridge, a leader of the Cherokee in the nineteenth century who was to play a major role in ceding Cherokee lands to European-American settlers.

The idea of independent sovereignty with full “property rights” observed is a Western concept that Native Americans adopted. The Cherokee Constitution, for example, was a purposeful effort by the Cherokee to adopt Western ideals, as through their observations they felt a sense order, structure, justice, and liberty. Hence, they moved to partition the Cherokee Nation from tribal culture, and establish a more formal and legal presence within North America. 

In Article 2, section 1, “The power of the Government shall be divided into three distinct departments---the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial.”[1] This is the same wording as the American Federal Constitution, in article 1, section 1. This leads me to believe that the Cherokee established their constitution under the same formatting as the Federal Government for reasons of: 1.) Tribal Security, 2.) Tribal Continuity, and 3.) Regional Relief of Tensions.

According to, “It was designed to solidify the tribe’s sovereignty and resist white encroachment and removal -- and to counter American citizens stereotyping of Indians as savages. The Cherokee constitution proved controversial with both other Cherokee, who saw it as a threat to tradition, and the state of Georgia, which thought it threatened its sovereignty over the tribe. Georgia continued, and succeeded in, its relentless pursuit of Cherokee removal, despite the Constitution adopted on July 26, 1827” [2] 

That is made worse when you learn that the Cherokee were attempting to assimilate into American society as best as they could while maintaining their own sovereign identity. Oppositely though, I find it hard to believe that there was not misconduct between Georgia and the Cherokee – on both sides. Typically, as in geopolitics, there is always a reaction to an action whether negative or positive in outcome.

I had an argument where a peer said, "A constitution that has been in practice since before the upstate settlements in the 1600s and may hold partial responsibility in the development of the settlers nation. As proof, they cite records kept by the colonists. An Onondaga named Canassatego, suggested that the colonists form a nation similar to the Iroquois Confederacy during a meeting of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania in Lancaster on June 25, 1744.”



There is an argument that the ideals for some Native American nations, such as the Cherokee, predate any influence provided by the Europeans. Where we see the most similarity is in how these Native Americans formatted their laws to reflect that of the settlers. This may have been done in the attempt to most effectively convey their already sovereign nations to these foreigners in a way that most effectively would do so.

I would humbly disagree that "the ideals for some Native American nations, such as the Cherokee, predate any influence provided by the Europeans." There is a lack of evidence that Western-style Native American political ideals predated European Influence, especially when it comes to the Constitution of National Governments. Here is why: colonial law and property ownership is a particularly Western concept (even though all cultures understand ownership over physical items).

An example here would be the Magna Carta of 1215. The Magna Carta was a signed document and statement that embodied the principle that both sovereign nations and sovereign people are beneath the law and subject to it. Later, both Englishmen and American Colonists cited the Magna Carta as a source of their freedom. Native Americans did not have access to this document.

Even before 1215, Alfred the Great, an English King from 871-899, was a strict follower of Catholic Saint Patrick. After many Viking invasions, Alfred the Great instituted Christian reforms in many areas of life, including government. These reforms were based on the Ten Commandments as the basis of law and adopted many other patterns of government based on religious texts. My point here is that, it is very difficult, if not impossible, that Native Americans could have established a style of Western or "Christian Constitution" without direct Western European influence.



According to the Michael P. Gueno, “English common law jurists expounded upon the argument for the English monarchy’s right to conquer non-Christian territories, most articulately described in Lord Chief Justice Edward Coke’s dicta in Calvin’s Case. Coke argued that all non-Christians were perpetual enemies, of the Christian and by their very nature are in a state of war with Christian nations.[3] However, despite the general consensus that Native American tribes lacked any rights to the territories that they occupied, in practice, colonists often felt compelled to obtain at least some formal semblance of legal consent from the tribes through treaties or purchase agreements to assert their claim upon tribal lands”. This shows that, despite how the settlers took the lands, there was still a desire to have a legal basis for taking the lands.

Mr. Gueno continues to state that, “Some colonists even denounced the unilateral rights and universal sovereignty of European Christians over the Native Americans. Colonial theologian Roger Williams rejected the assumption that being white and Christian were sufficient conditions to legitimize colonization or conversion. He argued that since Native Americans clearly believed that they owned the land, Native American–inhabited territories could not be legally treated as vacuum domicilium and settled without regard for tribal presence.” This helps to show that property ownership was understood. [4] 

Gueno concludes, “Europeans continued to debate conflicting religious interpretations of Indian rights during the early North American colonial era. Yet, whenever Native Americans were numerous, proximate, and potentially threatening, colonizing peoples felt pressed to seek Indian consent for new settlements. Thus, European powers ascribed, to some extent, in practice and in theory a sufficient degree of sovereignty to Native tribes to legitimately transfer claim of lands and administer their own communities.”[5]

How Native American lands were taken by Europeans, and how legal this was, is a complex issue in North American history. Interpretations are one of the major battles in presenting history, but I hope this article helps to explain more about Colonial Law and Native America.



What do you think of the arguments in the article? Let us know below.

Finally, Daniel Smith writes at


[1]"1839 Constitution." Cherokee Nation, Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.
[2] State of Georgia. "Cherokee Constitution.", 2013, Accessed 26 Nov. 2018
[3] David H. Getches, Charles F. Wilkinson, Robert A. Williams, Jr., Matthew L. M. Fletcher, & Kristen A. Carpenter, eds., Cases and Materials On Federal Indian Law, 7th ed. (Saint Paul, MN: West Academic Publishing, 2017), 63.
[4] Henry S. Commanger, ed., Documents of American History, 9th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968), 5–10.
[5] Gueno, Michael P. "Native Americans, Law, and Religion in America." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, 10 Nov. 2017, Accessed 10 June 2018.