Termination Era 1950s, Public Law 280

Juneau in late 1940s

Juneau in late 1940s

The 1950s are called the ‘termination era’ in federal Indian policy because Congress adopted policies aimed at terminating federal obligations to tribes. The three main tools the federal government used to accomplish this were the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) relocation program, actual termination of some tribes, and by extending state jurisdiction into Indian country through Public Law 280.

Relocation Programs: Relocating people from reservations and Alaska Native villages into the big U.S. cities for training and employment became a general trend after World War II. Indian Commissioner Glen Emmons started the BIA Relocation Program in 1948. By 1953 placements had reached 2,600, and they peaked in 1957 with some 7,000. By 1960 a total of 33,466 American Indian and Alaska Native people had been relocated.

Terminating Tribal Status: Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 108 (HCR 108) in 1953 which called for ending the special federal relationship with tribes and terminating their status as tribes as rapidly as possible. Over 100 tribes were terminated under this policy, and over a million acres of land were removed from trust status. Some tribes later regained their tribal status such as the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin. No tribes in Alaska were terminated under this policy, likely because Alaska did not become a State until the late 1950s when the federal policy of terminating tribal status was beginning to decline.

Public Law 280: Public Law 280 (P.L. 280) was an Act passed by Congress in 1953 which extended state criminal and some civil jurisdiction into Indian country in certain named states. In those states, P.L. 280 transferred federal law enforcement authority to state authority in Indian country. Without P.L. 280, these matters were dealt with by either tribal and/or federal law enforcement. Basically, P.L. 280 was an attempt by the federal government to reduce its role in Indian affairs. State dissatisfaction with the law was focused on the failure of the Act to provide funding for their new authority to enforce criminal law in Indian country. Tribes affected by P.L. 280 saw it as undermining tribal sovereignty because it was imposed on them without tribal consent, or even consultation. Public Law 280 has caused a great deal of confusion over jurisdiction in the states where it applies.

Public Law 280 was applied to Alaska upon Statehood in 1959, with the exception of the Metlakatla Indian Reservation. This law has been the subject of extensive debate and litigation in terms of what it means in Alaska, and will likely continue to confuse the picture of tribal and state jurisdiction for some years to come. The State of Alaska argued for many years that P.L. 280 terminated tribal jurisdiction, but court decisions have consistently ruled that it did not. Public Law 280 did not limit or diminish any tribal jurisdiction in the states where it applies. However, much tribal jurisdiction runs concurrently with the state, meaning both states and tribes share jurisdiction over many matters.

There is little Indian country in Alaska, so the application of P.L. 280 does not have a great effect on the ground. Alaska State law enforcement will continue to pursue major crimes everywhere in Alaska, in the villages and on all types of Native lands. One damaging effect of P.L. 280, however, is a policy by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to not fund to operation of tribal courts in states where Public Law 280 applies, which reduces Alaska tribal courts access to federal assistance.


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