The day before Grover Cleveland took office as the 22nd president of the United States, Congress passed the Major Crimes Act of 1885, providing for federal jurisdiction over seven major crimes committed by Indians on their own land.
The act came in response to Ex Parte Crow Dog, an 1883 Supreme Court decision that upheld tribal sovereignty over criminal matters. The case, which marked the first time in history an Indian was tried for the murder of another Indian, began in 1881 when Crow Dog, a member of the Brule band of the Lakota Sioux, shot and killed Spotted Tail, a chief on the Rosebud Sioux reservation.
In a unanimous and condescending decision, the Supreme Court found that federal courts lacked jurisdiction over Indian-on-Indian crimes on reservation land and that Brule law—not federal—governed the reservation. Subjecting Indians to federal law, the court ruled, would “impose upon them the restraints of an external and unknown code” that Indians lacked the ability to understand.
“It tries them not by their peers, nor by the customs of their people, nor the law of their land, but by superiors of a different race,” the justices wrote in their opinion. Doing so would amount to “measur(ing) the red man’s revenge by the maxims of the white man’s morality.”
Congress reacted to the ruling with the Major Crimes Act, claiming the high court undercut federal efforts to assimilate Indians into mainstream America. The act placed under federal jurisdiction the crimes of murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, maiming, rape, incest and assault with intent to commit murder.
The act was one of three devastating measures enacted during Cleveland’s first term in office that undermined tribal sovereignty and robbed Indians of land. Cleveland in 1887 signed the Dawes Act, which authorized the President to divide Indian land into individual allotments. Two years later, he signed the Indian Appropriations Act, officially opening “unassigned lands” to white settlers.