Tribal Court Jurisdiction over Civil Disputes Involving Non-Indians: An Assessment of National Farmers Union Insurance Cos. v. Crow Tribe of Indians and a Proposal for Reform

This Note examines the issue of tribal court jurisdiction over cases in which both Indians and non-Indians are parties and discusses the Supreme Court’s most recent statement on the issue. In National Farmers Union Insurance Cos. v. Crow Tribe of Indians, an Indian minor brought a personal injury action in Crow Tribal Court against a Montana school district operating a school on state-owned land within the Crow Reservation. The Supreme Court concluded that the tribal court itself should first determine whether it has the power to exercise civil subject-matter jurisdiction over non-Indian property owners in a tort case. Defendants contesting tribal court jurisdiction can seek federal review of the tribal exercise of jurisdiction in district court only after exhausting the remedies available in the tribal court system.

Part I of this Note sets out the relationship between the tribes and the federal government and traces the development of the tribal court systems. Part II discusses the National Farmers Union case and critiques the Supreme Court opinion. Part III proposes a plan for formal federal recognition of individual tribes’ civil jurisdiction over cases in various subject-matter areas in which both non-Indians and Indians are parties. Such a program would end uncertainty over the scope of tribal court civil jurisdiction and secure to the tribes the authority to adjudicate reservation-based civil disputes, thus aiding in the fulfillment of the federal policy of strengthening tribal government.