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Williams v. Lee

Williams v. Lee
Argued November 20, 1958
Decided January 12, 1959
Full case name Williams et ux. v. Lee, doing business as Ganado Trading Post
Citations 358 U.S. 217 (more)
79 S. Ct. 269, 3 L. Ed. 2d 251
Prior history Williams et ux. v. Lee, 319 P.2d 998 (Ariz. 1958).
The state of Arizona does not have jurisdiction to try a civil case between a non-Indian doing business on a reservation with tribal members who reside on the reservation, the proper forum for such a case is the tribal court.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Black, J, joined by Warren, CJ, Frankfurter, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker, and Stewart, JJ
Laws applied
U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3

Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217 (1959), was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the state of Arizona does not have jurisdiction to try a civil case between a non-Indian doing business on a reservation with tribal members who reside on the reservation, the proper forum for such a case is the tribal court.

The Navajo tribe has lived in the southwestern United States and first came into contact with the United States government in 1846, signing a treaty with the government in 1849. In the early 1860s, the government removed the tribe from their traditional area to eastern New Mexico at the Bosque Redondo. In 1868, the United States and the tribe signed a new treaty that put them back on a reservation in their traditional lands, where the tribe focused on raising sheep and goats.


  • Background 1
    • History of the tribe 1.1
    • Reservation 1.2
    • Indian traders 1.3
    • Credit dispute 1.4
      • State court 1.4.1
      • Arizona Supreme Court 1.4.2
  • Supreme Court 2
    • Arguments 2.1
    • Opinion of the court 2.2
  • Subsequent developments 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5


Navajo Indians in period dress for late 1860s, being escorted by white soldiers
Reenactment of the Long Walk

History of the tribe

The Navajo tribe came into contact with the United States in 1846 after General Stephen W. Kearney marched to Santa Fe during the Mexican-American War.[1] The tribe signed its first treaty with the United States in 1849,[2] and signed another treaty in 1868.[3] The 1849 treaty was immediately suspect among tribal members due to the actions of Colonel John Macrae Washington that resulted in the death of Navajo leader Narbona.[fn 1][5] With relations strained, in 1862 the United States began a military campaign under Kit Carson to remove the tribe from the mountains of Arizona[fn 2] to the Bosque Redondo on the Pecos River near present day Fort Sumner, New Mexico. This resulted in the Long Walk of the Navajo, removing the tribe from their home and relocating them to eastern New Mexico.[7] The 1868 treaty was signed at Fort Sumner and provided for the tribe's return to the current reservation and traditional homeland,[fn 3] but also for 15,000 head of sheep and goats and 500 cattle to be provided to the tribe by the U.S. government.[fn 4][11] Unlike many U.S. - Indian treaties, this treaty was celebrated by the Navajo as preserving the majority of their land for the tribe.[12]


Map showing locations of Navajo and Apache reservations in Arizona and New Mexico
Map of the Navajo reservation (in orange)

The Navajo reservation was originally established in eastern Arizona / western New Mexico. Although the tribe was promised 10,000 square miles (6,400,000 acres), the tribe actually received 5,285 square miles (3,382,302 acres).[13] Unlike most reservations, the Navajo reservation actually expanded over the following years.[14] Presidential executive orders added significant land to the reservation beginning in 1878 and running through 1901.[15] By 1934 and the last Congressional adjustment, the reservation contained 27,425 square miles (17,552,000 acres). At the same time the tribe was increasing its land, it was increasing the amount of livestock, particularly sheep. In the 1930s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) estimated that the reservation supported 575,000 sheep and 186,000 goats.[16] The livestock was overgrazing the land and the experts estimated that the land could only support half the number that was being grazed. The BIA then began an aggressive stock reduction program that reminded many Navajo of the imprisonment at the Bosque Redondo and was opposed by the tribe.[17]

At the same time, the Navajo began to develop a more detailed system of self-government, including a court system.[18] In 1949, Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation bill with a proviso known as the Fernandez amendment which would have granted the states jurisdiction over tribal lands.[19] President Harry S. Truman vetoed the bill and requested that Congress send it back to him without the Fernandez amendment, which it did the following year.[20]

Indian traders

Photo of Navajo woman and two white men holding a blanket in front of a building
Navajo trading post in the 1890s

The first licensed trading with the Navajo began in 1849, and Auguste Lacome was the first trader recorded.[21] After the return from the Bosque Redondo, Army sutlers at the military posts such as Fort Defiance, Arizona began to trade extra rations for Navajo wool.[22] By 1883, traders were buying 1.3 million pounds of wool in addition to other products raised or produced by the tribe[23] The traders, who were largely Mormon, often pushed for maximum immediate production rather than a long-term sustainable yield.[24] About 1885, the traders began to transform from a barter economy to a credit system.[25] The traders had a monopoly, and created a virtual system of debt bondage by being the only ones to offer credit for goods needed by tribal members.[26] However, after 1890 the U.S. government prohibited traders collecting for old debts and require that they use cash instead of trader script or "tin" money.[27]

Part of this was due to the nature of the trading system, where the trader could not own their own store or land, which must be leased from the Navajo.[28] In addition to the restriction on land, the trader had to post a $10,000 bond with the BIA.[28] Long-term traders, such as John Lorenzo Hubbell or William Keams, established relationships with tribal members to foster long-term repeat business.[29] These traders began to market Navajo blankets for use in mining camps and as area rugs in the eastern United States.[30] By 1943 there were over 140 trading posts on the reservation.[31]

Credit dispute

Herd of sheep in rough corral on Navajo reservation
Navajo sheep on reservation

Hugh Lee was an Indian trader who operated a trading post on the reservation. Lee was licensed by the BIA to operate the trading post and he sold goods on credit to members of the tribe. Paul Williams and his wife Lorena were enrolled tribal members of the Navajo tribe, and resided on the Navajo reservation. Williams bought goods on credit and did not make payment. In 1952, Lee filed a lawsuit[32] in the Superior Court of Apache County, Arizona and obtained a writ of attachment for sheep belonging to Williams.[fn 5][33]

State court

Williams moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the state court did not have jurisdiction on the reservation. In the meantime, Lee was granted an order authorizing the Apache County Sheriff to sell at auction the sheep belonging to Williams. In 1954 the trial court finally issued a ruling denying the motion to dismiss and in 1955, found for Lee.[33] Williams appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court.[34]

Arizona Supreme Court

At the Arizona Supreme Court, Williams argued that the proper jurisdiction was the Navajo tribal court and that a state officer did not have the authority to sell the sheep. The Arizona Supreme Court held that the state did have jurisdiction to hear civil cases involving Indians and non-Indians, since there was no Congressional prohibition against it. The court did rule, however, that federal regulations prohibited the sale of Indian livestock without the approval of BIA.[34] Williams then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and issued a writ of certiorari.[32][35]

Supreme Court

Justice Hugo Black portrait
Justice Hugo Black, author of the unanimous opinion


Norman M. Littell[fn 6] argued the case for Williams. Littell argued that Congress had plenary power to end tribal immunity but had not done so, and that other federal laws preempted state jurisdiction.[33] William W. Stevenson argued the case for Lee. He argued that the Navajo tribe was a creation of the federal government, and not a long-standing tribe like the Cherokee. His position was that there was no tribal sovereignty.[33] Solicitor General J. Lee Rankin filed an amicus curae brief at the request of the court, urging reversal.[35] While Rankin supported reversal, he did so on narrow grounds, based on federal regulations of Indian traders.[32][33]

Opinion of the court

[35] Finally, he noted that the Navajo tribal court has jurisdiction to hear civil cases brought by non-Indians against tribal members and that no federal statute has given Arizona jurisdiction to hear such cases.[fn 9][32][35][37][40]

Black stated that allowing the exercise of state jurisdiction would undermine tribal sovereignty and that only Congress had the authority to do so.[32][37][41] The case was reversed.[35]

Subsequent developments

Williams has been cited as the initial case in the modern era of federal Indian law.[32][33][40][41] It is widely cited in cases dealing with tribal sovereignty and state infringement on tribal rights.[40] Some claim that Williams formed the basis for the Indian self-determination era and for the Indian Self-Determination Act.[33][42] The case was also the first of a series of cases that limited Arizona's authority within the Navajo reservation.[fn 10][32][33][45] The case is considered a landmark case involving tribal sovereignty.[46][47]


  1. ^ The incident started when Col. Washington ordered a Navajo off of a horse and the Navajo refused. Washington ordered his troops to open fire, and seven Navajos, including Narbona, were slain, shot in the back as they were leaving.[4]
  2. ^ At the same time, Carson had his men destroy the tribe's means of survival, from cutting down peach orchards to killing sheep and other livestock.[6]
  3. ^ The Navajo's traditional homeland was defined by four mountain peaks, La Plata Mountain, Mount Blanca, Mount Taylor, and the San Francisco Peaks, which were viewed as sacred by the tribe.[8]
  4. ^ At one time, the Navajo were believed to possess about 500,000 sheep, 30,000 cattle, and 10,000 horses and mules.[9] By the time of the 1868 treaty, the tribe only had "940 sheep, 1,025 goats, and 1,550 horses...."[10]
  5. ^ Sheep were the primary livelihood for Williams and for most members of the Navajo tribe[33]
  6. ^ Littell was the attorney for the Navajo tribe, who funded the appeal to the Supreme Court. The tribe was concerned that if the Arizona Supreme Court decision stood, that state would undermine the authority of the tribe to govern itself.[32][33]
  7. ^ Black quoted [35][36]
  8. ^ Coincidentally, the same year that this case was decided, the Navajo Nation took control of its tribal courts back from the federal government.[33]
  9. ^ Black did note that Public Law 280 would grant Arizona such authority, but that Arizona has not moved to accept such jurisdiction.[32][35]
  10. ^ The other cases were Warren Trading Post Co. v. Arizona Tax Comm'n[43] and McClanahan v. Arizona State Tax Comm'n[44]


  1. ^ Peter Iverson, Diné: A History of the Navajos 36 (2002).
  2. ^ Act of Sept. 9, 1849, 9 Stat. 974; 1 Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties 583 (Charles J. Kappler ed. 1904); David E. Wilkins, The Navajo Political Experience 9 (4th ed. 2013).
  3. ^ Act of June 1, 1868, 15 Stat. 667; Kappler, 1 Indian Affairs at 1015.
  4. ^ Iverson, at 40-41; David E. Wilkins, Experience at 9-10; Teresa J. Wilkins, Patterns of Exchange: Navajo Weavers and Traders 19 (2013).
  5. ^ Iverson, at 40-41; David E. Wilkins, Experience at 9-10.
  6. ^ Teresa J. Wilkins, at 20-21.
  7. ^ Iverson, at 50-53; Bethany R. Berger, Sheep, Sovereignty, and the Supreme Court: The Story of Williams v. Lee, in Indian Law Stories 359, 362 (Carole Goldberg, Kevin K. Washburn, & Philip P. Frickey, eds. 2011).
  8. ^ Caitlin O'Neal, The Navajo's Ancient Roots,, last visited on Nov. 13, 2013.
  9. ^ Iverson, at 39.
  10. ^ Iverson, at 66-67.
  11. ^ 15 Stat. 667; Kappler, 1 Indian Affairs at 1015; David E. Wilkins, Experience at 11-12.
  12. ^ Iverson, at 40-41.
  13. ^ Iverson, at 68.
  14. ^ Iverson, at 69.
  15. ^ Kappler, 1 Indian Affars at 875.
  16. ^ Iverson, at 76.
  17. ^ Berger, Sheep at 361-62; O'Neal.
  18. ^ Berger, Sheep at 365; O'Neal.
  19. ^ Berger, Sheep at 364-65.
  20. ^ Berger, Sheep at 365.
  21. ^ Teresa J. Wilkins, at 21-22.
  22. ^ Teresa J. Wilkins, at 22.
  23. ^ Iverson, at 79.
  24. ^ Iverson, at 76-77.
  25. ^ Kathy M'Closkey, Swept Under the Rug: A Hidden History of Navajo Weaving 44-45 (2008).
  26. ^ M'Closkey, at 44, 46.
  27. ^ M'Closkey, at 53-54.
  28. ^ a b Teresa J. Wilkins, at 24.
  29. ^ Teresa J. Wilkins, at 23-24.
  30. ^ Teresa J. Wilkins, at 28-29.
  31. ^ M'Closkey, at 44.
  32. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Dewi Ioan Ball, William v. Lee - 50 Years Later: A Reassessment of One of the Most Important Cases in the Modern-Era of Federal Indian Law 2010 Mich. State L. Rev. 391 (2010).
  33. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Bethany R. Berger, Williams v. Lee and the Debate over Indian Equality, 109 Mich. L. Rev. 1463 (2009).
  34. ^ a b Williams et ux. v. Lee, 319 P.2d 998 (Ariz. 1958).
  35. ^ a b c d e f g Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217 (1959).
  36. ^ a b U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832).
  37. ^ a b c Robert N. Clinton, State Power over Indian Reservations: A Critical Comment on Burger Court Doctrine, 26 S.Dak. L. R. 434 (1981).
  38. ^ Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act of 1950, Apr. 19, 1950, ch. 92, 64 Stat. 46, 25 U.S.C. § 636.
  39. ^ 6 Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties 498-502 (Charles J. Kappler, ed. 1971).
  40. ^ a b c Charles F. Wilkinson, American Indians, Time, and the Law: Native Societies in a Modern Constitutional Democracy 1-3, 106 (1988).
  41. ^ a b Peter Iverson & Monty Roessel, Diné: A History of the Navajos 209-210 (2002).
  42. ^ Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, Jan. 4, 1975, 88 Stat. 2203.
  43. ^ Warren Trading Post Co. v. Arizona Tax Comm'n, 380 U.S. 465 (1965).
  44. ^ McClanahan v. Arizona State Tax Comm'n, 411 U.S. 164 (1973).
  45. ^ David E. Wilkins, American Indian Sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court: The Masking of Justice 276 (1997).
  46. ^ Raymond D. Austin, Navajo Courts and Navajo Common Law: A Tradition of Tribal Self-Governance xi, 27-28 (2009).
  47. ^ Landmark Indian Law Cases 65 (2003).
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