Arizona v. Navajo Nation

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Indian Law
  • Date Filed: June 22, 2023
  • Case #: 21-1484
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: KAVANAUGH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS, ALITO, and BARRETT, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion. GORSUCH, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and JACKSON, JJ., joined.
  • Full Text Opinion

In 1868, the United States set apart a large reservation “for the use and occupation of the Navajo tribe” within the new American territory in the western United States.

In 1868, a peace treaty between the United States and the Navajo Tribe established the Navajo Reservation. When the Federal Government reserves an area of land for an Indian Tribe, it “implicitly reserves the right to use needed water from various sources that arise on, border, cross, underlie, or are encompassed within the reservation.” Winters v. United States, 207 U. S. 564. The Navajo Nation faces a water scarcity issue. As a result, the Tribe believed that the Federal Government’s efforts to assist with their water needs did not fully satisfy the trust obligations under the 1868 treaty. The Navajo Nation asserted a breach-of-trust claim arising out of the treaty and sought to compel the United States to take affirmative steps to secure needed water for the Tribe. The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona dismissed the complaint and determined that the 1868 treaty did not impose such a duty. The Ninth Circuit, however, reversed. The Court granted certiorari to determine whether the treaty requires the United States to take affirmative steps to secure water for the Navajo Nation. To maintain a breach of trust claim, the Tribe must establish “that the text of a treaty, statute, or regulation imposed certain duties on the United States.” United States v. Jicarilla Apache Nation, 564 U. S. 162. Despite the fact that the treaty reserves land for the use and occupation of the Navajo Tribe, there is no language imposing the specific duty to take affirmative steps to secure water. Additionally, the Court’s precedents establish that a "general trust relationship" exists between the United States and Indian Tribes. But because the treaty does not establish a "conventional trust relationship," the Court will not infer duties that are not found within the text of the treaty. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.

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