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'One of the Most Important Indian Law Cases to Go Before the High Court in Half a Century'

The Supreme Court is hearing a case about whether a Choctaw Indian boy's parents are allowed to sue, through tribal courts, a company that employed a man they allege sexually assaulted their son.
(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the parents of a Choctaw Indian boy can sue a non-tribal American chain store, Dollar General, through tribal courts. The parents allege a manager at a Dollar General, located on tribal trust land, sexually assaulted their son when he was 13 and working at the store. Tribes and legal experts are watching the case closely, as it's long been contentious how far tribal jurisdiction extends when it comes to crimes committed by non-Indians on tribal land. Indian Country Today called Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians "arguably one of the most important Indian law cases to go before the high court in half a century."

Historically, tribes' legal reach has been short. As A.C. Shilton reported for Pacific Standard in May, a 1978 Supreme Court decision made it so that "Indian tribal courts do not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and to punish non-Indians, and hence may not assume such jurisdiction unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress."

The so-called Oliphant decision that Shilton describes has been especially troublesome in cases of rape and sexual assault, which are prevalent in Indian Country. Compared to Americans of other races, American Indian and Alaska Native women are more than twice as likely to experience rape or sexual violence, Shilton reports. Two-thirds of the time, their assaulters are non-native men, which means that, if they want to sue, they'll have to do it through the United States' system.

But attorneys often won't take on their cases. Between 2005 and 2009, lawyers declined to prosecute more than half of violent crimes committed on tribal land, two-thirds of which were sexual assault cases, according to a Government Accountability Office report. "So there's this endemic problem that federal prosecutors do not care about sexual assault in native communities," Annita Lucchesi, an activist who worked for the National Indigenous Women's Resource Council, told Shilton.

The Choctaw boy's parents, however, have a fighting chance: There's an exception to the law that says tribal courts can punish non-tribal entities if they've entered contracts, leases, or other business agreements with a tribal member. Dollar General leases the storefront where the boy worked through a Choctaw-owned company, SCOTUSblog reports. Dollar General, however, argues the exception shouldn't apply to civil matters, such as this assault case.

Some business groups support Dollar General, warning of a rush of lawsuits against businesses that operate on Indian land if the Mississippi Choctaws win, the Associated Press reports. Meanwhile, the National Indigenous Women's Resource Council and other native women's groups have been staging protests in favor of the Mississippi Choctaws. "Non-Indian corporations and sex predators must be held accountable," Cherrah Giles, NIWRC's board president, said in a statement. "Race should not be a license to prey on native women and children."


Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.