Making Indian Law: The Hualapai Land Case and the Birth of Ethnohistory

By DeSpain, S. Matthew | The Journal of Chickasaw History and Culture, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Making Indian Law: The Hualapai Land Case and the Birth of Ethnohistory


DeSpain, S. Matthew, The Journal of Chickasaw History and Culture


Making Indian Law: The Hualapai Land Case and the Birth of Ethnohistory by Christian W McMillen New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 284 pages. ISBN 978-0-300-11460-7.

In Making Indian Law, Christian W McMillen analyzes one of the most important cases involving Indigenous land claims in the twentieth century - the case of United States v. Santa Fe Railroad (1941). The decision rendered in this case by the United States Supreme Court in favor of the Hualapai people of the Grand Canyon region is the centerpiece of this study. Most importantly, the Supreme Court decision established the doctrine that Indian title to land rests with the tribe that possessed and occupied that land unless otherwise surrendered to the United States by treaty, abandoned, or title extinguished by federal statute.

The book, however, is more than a simple case study in federal Indian law and policy. McMillen also explores the social, historical, and geographical contexts of the case. Central to this portion of the story is Hualapai activist Fred Mahone, and other tribal leaders, who contended that their ancestral lands were unequivocally theirs by absolute knowledge and not just belief. Mahone and others compiled artifacts and oral histories, essentially marshalling the evidence to prove their position against local, state, corporate, and federal powers working (at times in collusion with one another) to deny the Hualapai recognition of land ownership. Indeed, the theme of this study is the conflict of perceptions between the Hualapai, who wondered why centuries of occupation upon the same lands meant nothing when compared to the rights of the railroad, cattle interests, and Justice Department personnel, and other groups who deemed the Hualapai as "savage" and "nomadic," and thus without claim to their own ancestral lands. In this case, the Supreme Court sided with the tribe and with that decision, created a set of precedents that have benefited other tribal groups on occasion, even by other higher courts around the globe (New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and Nigeria) dealing with indigenous land claims.

Another argument of the study that is equally important is McMillen's line of reasoning that the Santa Fe case was key to the creation of ethnohistory. As McMillen notes, "if it is true that the great outpouring of Indian history that resulted from the formation of the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) marks more or less the formal birth of ethnohistory then the discipline was conceived during the Hualapai case" (p. xv).

The book's first chapters deal with the issues and historical context that set the foundation for the case. …

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