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Ex Parte Crow Dog

Ex Parte Crow Dog (1883) is a Supreme Court case decision that ruled that federal courts did not have authority over crimes committed by one American Indian against another on reservation treaty lands that were governed by language referring to acts committed by "bad men among the Indians."


Crow Dog (c.1835-1910) was a Lakota Sioux leader. In 1881, he killed a Lakota Sioux chief, Spotted Tail. The killing might have resulted from a feud over tribal leadership or a woman, or both. Crow Dog paid the family the peace offering dictated by the Lakota tribal council: $600 (the equivalent of approximately $12,800 today), 8 horses, and a blanket. Despite this, he was tried for murder by the Dakota Territory Court and found guilty (the Territory Supreme Court upheld the verdict). He was sentenced to death, with the execution to be held on January 14, 1884.

Ex Parte Crow Dog

The case was taken to the United States Supreme Court. Crow Dog argued that the federal court didn't have jurisdiction to try him. The case was argued on November 26, 1883, with the decision given on December 17, 1883. The court ruled that previous laws and treaties covered crimes committed by American Indians against Whites, and Whites against American Indians, but left crimes by American Indians against American Indians to be handled by the customs of the tribes. If Congress wanted to change that situation, it would have to pass a new law. A writ of habeas corpus was issued, releasing Crow Dog.

Major Crimes Act

In response to the decision for Ex Parte Crow Dog, the United States Congress passed the Major Crimes Act in 1885. This act designated that the crimes of murder, manslaughter, rape, assault with intent to commit murder, arson, burglary, and larceny, if committed by an American Indian against another American Indian on tribal lands, would fall under the jurisdiction of the United States. By appropriating authority to handle these felonies Congress reduced the sovereignty of the tribes. 

The constitutionality of the act was upheld in United States v. Kagama (1886). The list of major crimes would be expanded to include kidnapping, maiming, incest, assault with a dangerous weapon, assault resulting in serious bodily harm, and assault against a person younger than 16.


Crow Dog later became a spiritual leader among the Sioux, helping to popularize the Ghost Dance. One of his descendants, Leonard Crow Dog, was also a spiritual leader during the Occupation of Wounded Knee.


Much of the information here was found in American Indian Experience Online (requires Rapid City Public Library card to access) has the entire ruling of Ex Parte Crow Dog

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