Law | Opinion

Steven Newcomb: Supreme Court justice became known for 'scalping' Indians






A view of the Tongass National Forest near Ketchikan, Alaska. Timber taken from lands in and around the forest became the focus of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case. Photo: Mark Brennan

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States is considered one of the worst in Indian law because it set a precedent against the recognition of tribal land rights. Steven Newcomb (Shawnee / Lenape) of the Indigenous Law Institute digs deeper into the handling of the case and uncovers something surprising about the justice who authored the 1955 ruling:
Ruling against the Indians in a given case is being characterized as “scalping the Indians.” And apparently this kind of racist metaphorical word-play was somewhat typical in the chambers of the Supreme Court because [Edward] Gilson, the interviewer, goes on to recount another example.

GILSON: I remember reading some . . . some memoranda from . . . from Douglas after . . . well, after he [Reed] had retired. . . he [interview subject Gordon B. Douglas] wrote to Reed criticizing one of [Charles] Whittaker’s opinions, saying that, you know, “You scalped the Indians, but Whittaker’s really doing it.” [laughter–Davidson]

Stanley Reed was born on December 31, 1884, and Davidson says that Reed “had trouble finding the government doing any wrong.” Furthermore, Reed was extremely protective of the United States, as demonstrated by his dissenting opinion in an earlier decision, United States v. Alcea Band of Tillamooks 329 U.S. 40 (1946). The Supreme Court held that the Alcea Band Indians were entitled to receive monetary compensation for an extinguishment of “original Indian title” in Oregon. Reed wrote a dissent.

“It is difficult to foresee the result of this [Alcea Band] ruling in the consideration of claims by Indian tribes against the United States,” wrote Reed. “We do not know the amount of land taken. West of the Mississippi it must be large,” he added.

Read More on the Story:
Steven Newcomb: ‘Generally Scalping the Indians,’ I Might Add (Indian Country Media Network 5/9)