Supreme Court rules tribal police can detain non-Natives on reservation land


In a case sure to reverberate in Alaska at some point, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that tribal police officers have authority to search and detain non-Indians who are suspected of breaking federal or state law on reservation land.

The case is United States v. Cooley, which concerns an arrest of a non-Native who was parked on the right of way of a federal highway that cuts across the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. The tribal police offer found evidence on the man, Joshua James Cooley, including two semi-automatic weapons on the front seat. Subsequently, tribal police found methamphetamine in his truck.

Alaska has 229 federally recognized tribes, many of which have tribal police officers, but few of which are actual reservations.

Metlakatla in southern Southeast is a traditionally structured historic Indian reservation, the only one in Alaska that remained after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was completed and Native corporations took the place of reservations. But since then, the Obama Administration allowed Alaska tribes to apply for “trust status” for their land, contrary to ANCSA. In 2017, an acre of land in Craig, a fishing community in Southeast Alaska became “Indian Country,” as the land was placed into federal trust status at the request of the tribe.

Read: One acre of Craig township becomes Indian Country

In 2018, the Trump Administration reversed the rule that allowed Alaska Natives to put land into federal trust. Now, a bill working its way through the Congress could reinstate the land-into-trust program.

Read Interior Department withdraws opinion on Alaska Native land into trust

Justice Stephen Breyer’s opinion this week appears to expand on the court’s 1981 decision in Montana v. United States, which gave limited law enforcement power to tribes in circumstances where a non-tribal member poses a threat to the “political integrity, economic security or health or welfare of the tribe.”

“To deny a tribal police officer authority to search and detain for a reasonable time any person he or she believes may commit or has committed a crime would make it difficult for tribes to protect themselves against ongoing threats,” Breyer wrote. “Such threats may be posed by, for instance, non-Indian drunk drivers, transporters of contraband or other criminal offenders operating on roads within the boundaries of a tribal reservation.”

In Alaska, the impact of the ruling may be drug-related in the near future in places adjacent to where village police officers are located. Eventually, the law may also be interpreted to cover things like fish and game management: In areas where the Federal Subsistence Board says only tribal subsistence users can harvest fish and game, will tribal enforcement officers go onto federal lands to enforce the law? That would be a matter that could end up in court in the future if a tribe says a non-tribal person fishing in an area posed an economic threat to the tribe.


  1. Good, give all the local Native tribes full entitlement to their lands and properties. It has been prophesied that the Native tribes will blossom like the rose before the return of Jesus Christ in his power and glory. These are the Latter Days. Realize it is going to happen.

  2. This could be good or bad.
    It will be good if they can use their jurisdiction to bust bootleggers and drug dealers who come into their villages.
    It will be bad if the people they detain end up in tribal courts, which seem to have a 50/50 possibility of being corrupt. Nepotism is pretty strong in rural Alaska.

  3. The problem with the first commenters recommendation is that the Natives negotiated with the State but mostly the Federal government and sold the rights to what was their tribal lands in exchange for other State and Federal land and a Billion dollars. They agreed to accept the regional corporations and current tribal structure. Those entities created was given preferential government contracting status. The whole purpose was to not make them wards of the Federal government but give them the chance to prosper and grow free from government control or reservations. They have successfully grown the corporations and provided dividends, employment and medical care under their own control.

    Now that the they have prospered and succeeded they want to claim they didn’t know what they agreed to and that they still own all the tribal lands and rights they gave up for money and self-governance. They can’t have it both ways. They already are exempt from many state laws that most Alaskans have to obey, millions if not billions of Federal and State money continue to flow to them.

    I have no objection to tribal officers or VPSOs enforcing State and Federal law with the same responsibilities of other public law enforcement officers after completion of State or Federal training and certification.

    But the non-native people arrested or detained need to be tried in State or Federal court under State or Federal laws not tribal courts if they are going to use tribal laws and not State or Federal laws.

    If it is right for ALaska Natives to have all their tribal lands restored to them should return to every Native and Indian tribe their lands? Hawaiian natives want their Islands lands back. Manhattan should go back to the tribe that was paid $24 in Trinkets, the Sioux, Cheyanne, Apache, Crow, Blackfeet and many others lost all their land with no compensation and were forced on reservations.

    Alaska natives were compensated more than any other similar tribe in our history and are better off for the deal their leaders agreed to and accepted. The corporations on the North Slope are making billions from the oil taxes. Southeast Native Corporations were given lands with harvestable timber on them and instead of preserving the trees they clear cut them for profit until none were left to harvest and then asked Congress for more. The western region natives are suffering because they had little or nothing to profit from except fishing. The other Corporations shall a small amount of their profits with their brothers but not enough to level the field so they require more support to survive.

    Why should ALaska natives be treated differently from the any other Native Tribe or Indian tribe?

  4. The issue of classifying persons as “Indian” for legal purposes ties into the complex broader question of racial laws being incorporated into the legal system. Does the officer retained by a specific “reservation” government or council have authority only for a suspect who is enrolled in said corporation or tribe on whose lands the offense occurred? Or do they have a broader power over all corporations and tribes? How does an officer determine if the suspect is an enrolled corporation or tribal member from another state? Do they have the right to force a person to produce a tribal enrollment and a proof of corporation share ownership? Not all shareholders are also tribal enrollees. How are hate crimes determined, by blood quantum? Is there a minimum blood quantum to be deemed sufficiently White to be charged with a “hate crime” if the victim has sufficient blood quantum of another race? It seems the basis is arbitrary without actual legal descriptions, for example if a 1/8th Black person who appears “White” assaults a 3/4th Black person who appears “Black”, is that sufficient basis for a hate crime based on racism?
    Rule of law must not be arbitrary, all subset definitions of people must be ended, or a detailed Apartheid type of racial definitions must be created, if America is forced to de homogenize from being one people.

  5. I would be curious to hear the prophecy itself, and not just a reference to it. The inference is that it’s a Biblical prophecy. I know the Bible fairly well.
    Chapter and verse John?

  6. So, does this mean that federal and state law enforcement officers can also search and detain Indians on reservation land, or has that always been the case? We all want the bad guys to be caught and removed from wherever they are without being able to exploit a loophole, especially one based on race. I just know that there have been a lot of pssing matches over who has jurisdiction.

  7. Yes state law enforcement officers have presidents on any land in the state of Alaska. Local native cops can only arrest native people. They have to wait for troopers to come in if there is a crime committed by a non-native. There are exceptions to this rule in the case of public safety, they can make a citizens arrest. This has been already addressed in federal courts. The sovereignty of village police officers is limited. This is just another attempt by the lame Alaska supreme Court to make new laws instead of enforcing old ones.

  8. State and federal has always had, and will continue to have primary jurisdiction over all felonies, and major misdemeanors on Indian reservations.
    Alaska state troopers will not be hindered in any way on Native land, including the Metlakatla Indian Community reservation, in SE AK.
    All this decision does is put an end to “teepee creeping” and other minor infractions by non Natives.
    You Gussiks … get off our lawn! Ahahahahahaha!

  9. MASKED: “Does this mean the tribes will quit dumping their undesirables on the rest of us?”
    No, because it’s the only way we can obtain parity for all the undesirables you dumped on us. The worst ones were the pedo-priests and nuns, but the Native child thieving social workers are a close runner up. Maybe third are the teachers who wouldn’t let us speak our own language.
    If you ever decide to stay in one of our villages for any length of time, we may have to send three of our undesirables to Anchorage, just to stay even. Ahahahahahahaha!

  10. “… an arrest of a non-Native who was parked on the right of way of a federal highway that cuts across the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana.”
    So now we’re going to have tribal police patrolling federal and state highways that cross reservation lands?
    Stopping non-tribal motorists and detaining them, searching their vehicles, acting like actual federal or state law enforcement?
    Non-tribal American citizens have some control through the political process over federal, state and local police. If a citizen feels that their elected representatives aren’t exercising proper control over law enforcement the citizens can vote in more amenable representation.
    On the reservation that is not an option for non-tribal members and that could be a real problem.
    Reservations have nation-in-nation status…are these tribal officers educated and trained to the same standards that we hold American law enforcement to? Are they certified and credentialed as bona fide American law enforcement officers?
    Tribal police should be limited in jurisdiction to tribal members on tribal land and as far as non-tribal citizens committing crimes on tribal lands tribal police have the same rights as any citizen does to intervene…but stopping, detaining and searching non-tribal citizens who are transiting tribal lands on federal or state highways is going too far.
    Tribal police should stick to enforcing the law on tribal members and they can leave the rest of us alone.

  11. Greg,

    This was a unanimous ruling from the United States Supreme Court, not from the AK Supreme Court.
    I’d be willing to bet this won’t impact Alaska lands the way it does lands in the lower 48, it will probably take a few years to play out but ANSCA will play a large part in whatever the ultimate ruling is for lands in Alaska.

  12. I think the heart of this article is to point out the possibility of Native Communities having ultimate authority over fishing and hunting violations, therefore resource development opportunities.

    However, the fact is that ANCSA is a contract that was accepted and survives.

    Tribes in Alaska have been federally recognized in the late 1980 or 1990’s by Secretary of the Department of Interior Ada Deer.

    As we know there are three distinct and separate authorities of government, Congress, Judicial, and Administration.

    Congress passed ANCSA and was signed by President Richard Nixon.

    A Secretary below the President, recognized the Tribes federally in Alaska many years later, with the understanding that the Alaska Tribes do not have land jurisdictional rights as the lower 48 Tribes do.

    We wanted something better in Alaska. Our ancestors are global citizens. We embrace that and want cooperation, collaboration, embracing innovation, so that our collective existence flourishes going forward. It is not about jurisdiction or race.

    It is about compromise, listening to each other, and finding consensus.

    Alaska Native people are just people, just like you and me, as I am Inupiat, Yupik, Russian, Norwegian, and blessed with the blood of various other nationalities.

    If we could convene meetings of the collective minds in Alaska and attend those meetings without a hidden agenda, how powerful might that be?

    Anyhow, my thoughts for the day.

  13. This could lead to one or more unfortunate incidents. I don’t know about tribal people, real or imagined, but non-Natives would only be compelled to obey a supposed LEO from a non-elected, non-democratic government on Metlakatla. Otherwise our stand-you-ground laws and our castle law apply and protect all Alaskans, everywhere. Shoot straight and speak the truth. Obey gun safety rules, shoot often and dry fire every day.

  14. MASKED: This current news article underscores my previous reply to you.

    “Pope Francis on Sunday expressed his pain over the discovery in Canada of the remains of 215 Indigenous students of church-run boarding schools … Ground-penetrating radar was used to confirm the remains of the children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, last month … From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools … The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages.”
    KTUU June 6.

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