Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In Montana v. United States (1981), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Crow Tribe of Montana did not possess the inherent sovereign power to regulate hunting and fishing by nonmembers of the tribe on lands owned by non-Indians within its reservation boundaries. The decision arose out of a dispute between the Crows and the state of Montana over the question of which entity had jurisdiction to control hunting and fishing within the reservation boundaries and primarily focused on the right to regulate fishing and duck hunting on and around the Big Horn River, which flows through the Crow reservation. The Crows based their claim on their inherent powers of tribal sovereignty and the language of the various treaties that created their reservation and, they argued, gave them ownership of the bed of the Big Horn River. Montana, on the other hand, argued that it took title to the riverbed at the time it became a state and that it had always maintained the authority to regulate hunting and fishing by non-Indians within the reservation.

In an attempt to resolve the conflict, the United States, acting as trustee for the tribe, initiated a lawsuit in 1975 seeking a judicial resolution of both the threshold question of title to the riverbed and the accompanying jurisdictional dispute over hunting and fishing rights. The federal district court ruled in favor of Montana, holding that the state rather than the Crows owned the banks and bed of the Big Horn River. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court's decision, holding, with some qualifications, that the treaties establishing the Crow Reservation had vested title to the riverbed in the United States as trustee for the tribe and that the Crows could regulate hunting and fishing within the reservation by nonmembers. In its 1981 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals, essentially restoring the district court's judgment in favor of the state of Montana.

Two components of the ruling are key. On the question of title to the riverbed, the Court held that, notwithstanding certain ostensibly contradictory language in the 1851 and 1868 treaties by which the Crow Reservation was formed, title to the riverbed passed to the state of Montana upon its admission into the Union in 1889. With respect to the broader issues of inherent tribal sovereignty, the Court acknowledged that Indian tribes still maintain certain powers of self-government but went on to hold that those powers extend only to the control of "internal relations." Extension of tribal power beyond the realm of internal tribal matters, the Court ruled, would be "inconsistent with the dependent status of the tribes." Finding that control of hunting and fishing by nonmembers on lands no longer owned by the tribe (but still within its reservation) bears "no clear relationship to tribal selfgovernment or internal relations," the Court held that the Crows did not possess the "retained inherent sovereignty" to regulate those activities.

The Montana decision and others like it are universally perceived by Native Americans and their supporters as troubling judicial assaults on the remnants of tribal sovereignty, confirming the extremely fragile nature of that sovereignty and reiterating the ultimate power of the federal government to define the precise scope and extent of Indian powers of self-determination.


Mark R. Scherer University of Nebraska at Omaha

Bloxham, Steven John. "Tribal Sovereignty: An Analysis of Montana v. United States." American Indian Law Review 8 (1980): 175–81.

Canby, William C., Jr. American Indian Law in a Nutshell. 3rd ed. St. Paul MN: West Group, 1998.

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