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Public Law 280 and U.S. Indigenous Peoples Law

September 27, 2021


In 1953, Public Law 280 was passed and changed who had criminal jurisdiction on tribal lands. This law “significantly changed the division of legal authority among tribal, federal, and state governments” (Harvey 2020). P.L. 280 transferred jurisdiction over Native American reservations from the federal government to state governments. Before P.L. 280, states had no authority over tribal lands. Congress passed this law for three main reasons: the lawlessness on reservations, assimilating Indians into the American white population and a shrinking budget for Indian affairs (Jimenez & Song 1998). In addition, the adoption and implementation of P.L. 280 were put into place without consent, which means the Indigenous population had no say over how this law would affect them (Goldberg & Singleton 2005). Ironically, Congress passed P.L. 280 because of the lawlessness and apparent crime infesting tribal lands. Unfortunately, this law has become a source of even more lawlessness and crime.


To shine a light on how P.L. 280 has contributed heavily to human rights abuses, specifically regarding tribal sovereignty and the right to life, while focusing on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The passing of this law created many issues, has been a source of multiple protests and complaints, ignited lawlessness and crimes to increase, and most importantly, reservations have suffered from a “greater systemic disadvantage in the administration of justice” (Cline 2013).


Since little has been done to determine the law’s impact on the Native peoples, it is essential to look into how P.L. 280 contributed to, and continues to contribute to, human rights abuses (Goldberg & Singleton 2005). According to a quantitative research study, the volume of all crimes increased by 77% in states mandatorily under P.L. 280 (Cline 2013). This law has not helped the Native population; it has given more power to the states, significantly reducing Indian sovereignty and increasing the number of fatal encounters Natives have with police. In 2007, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People was passed due to past and ongoing violence and abuse. Unfortunately, the U.S. government still fails to do anything about the shortcomings that arose from P.L. 280.


Right to Life

Article 7 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People states that “Indigenous individuals have the right to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of a person” (United Nations 2007). This coincides with Article 3 UDHR, which states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security” (United Nations 1948). Still, in practice, it has not been followed through, specifically in regard to Native American’s right to life. Native Americans in the 9th District had 18 times as many fatal encounters per population as whites. In regard to just discussing gender discrepancies, “Native American women have the highest number of fatal encounters per population, more than 38 times as many as white females,” and the ratio for Native American men is 14 times that of white men (Harvey 2020).

In tribal statistical areas, there were a total of 89/239 fatal encounters, and outside of tribal statistical areas, there were a total of 150/239 deadly encounters with the police. This speaks to how most of the fatal encounters for Native Americans occurred outside tribal statistical areas by either local or state police (Harvey 2020). The U.S. government (the state and federal officials) will not assume the responsibility of P.L. 280 (Goldberg & Singleton 2005).

The U.S. government also fails to acknowledge that the crime rates of American Indians are 2.5 times the national average, and this is just one example that demonstrates how P.L. 280 reservations have suffered an even greater systemic disadvantage in the administration of justice (Cline 2013). The Right to Life was not put into practice well enough. It was not clear that the Right to Life was meant for Indigenous peoples, so it had to be reiterated in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations 1948). Even so, it is still not being followed, and that is why P.L. 280 is contributing to human rights abuses towards the U.S. Indigenous population.

Tribal Sovereignty

Article 4 in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that Indigenous people “have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affair[s]” (United Nations 2007). P.L. 280 has mainly challenged self-government and tribal sovereignty because the tribe no longer decides what happens with criminal proceedings. The state now has complete control over that. The Indigenous peoples’ law and order are now controlled by state jurisdiction, primarily the state police. Tribal sovereignty is what makes up Indian nations, and tribal sovereignty is recognized and protected by the U.S. constitution, as well as applicable principles of human rights.

Furthermore, without tribal sovereignty, tribes would not be distinct political entities within the U.S. federal system (Kalt & Singer 2004). It is the tribal government that decides what is taught in the reservation high school, what taxes are collected, who can regulate contracts. If a non-Indian government has a say in any of this, then the Indian tribe lacks sovereignty.

P.L. 280 shifted jurisdiction to the states, thus giving states more power and questioning tribal sovereignty that existed for hundreds of years on tribal reservations. A series of interviews were conducted with tribal people and law enforcement on how they first found out about P.L. 280.

One tribal member stated, “I heard about it since my earliest memories growing up. Yeah, yeah elders, tribal meetings, there was a lot of discontent. This is back in the early 1960’s. I can remember people talking about it up to the early 1970’s that they didn’t like the fact that outside sheriffs can come in and roam the reservation at will. There was a lot of concern about that; people were not respecting the tribe’s sovereignty.” (Goldberg & Champagne 2007)

Two-hundred-and-eighteen people were asked what P.L. 280 meant to them. Forty-five criminal justice personnel, 29 law enforcement personnel and 44 reservation residents were included in this survey. To give a few statistics, 15.6% answered that P.L. 280 meant difficulties for tribal governments; 5.5% said that P.L. 280 meant advantages for tribal governments; 60.1% said that it meant state/county criminal jurisdiction; 11.8% of the respondents reported that P.L. 280 diminished tribal sovereignty (Goldberg & Champagne 2007).

With a law that concerns the state police and Natives living on tribal lands, it is an issue that a law affecting so much only got a 5.5% result for being advantageous for tribal governments. It is also an even more significant concern that 11.8% of the people reported it diminished tribal sovereignty and that not even statistically speaking, a Native said that “[sheriffs] were not respecting the tribe’s sovereignty” (Goldberg & Champagne 2007). It is excellent that Indigenous people have the human right to “autonomy or self-government.” Still, when put to the test, the U.S. government is not practicing this human right and has yet to acknowledge this disregard.


It is essential to distinguish that even though human rights are “standards, or rules about the way things should be,” they are not always followed (Cardenas 2010). This is no surprise, especially as I have shared how P.L. 280 contributes to human rights abuses. The most important thing about human rights is that they exist even when they are not protected, and that is why I have chosen to analyze how P.L. 280 affects Indigenous people, even if the U.S. government fails to recognize it. Therefore, human rights issues of right to life, the right that Indigenous peoples “have the right to participate in decision-making in matters that would affect their rights,” and “the right to autonomy or self-government,” still exist even though these rights were not, and continue to not, be protected under P.L. 280 (United Nations 2007).

After analyzing how P.L. 280 contributes to human rights abuses, here are my thoughts on what should happen moving forward:

There should be an increase in information surrounding P.L. 280 for tribal community members that are under P.L. 280 jurisdiction. There should be more community, cultural understanding and trust built between law enforcement and tribal community members. This could help bridge the gap where tribal members feel like law enforcement violates their tribal sovereignty so that both parties can gain an understanding of what is being violated. There should be greater funding for tribal police, funding that was taken away when the federal government no longer federally recognized some tribes. Lastly, there should be increased funding for more research into the impacts of P.L. 280. There is a lack of research that has gone into the negative aspects of this law, so this is one of the most important recommendations I can make. This research should specifically compare the P.L. 280 community with the non-P.L. 280 community and see where a multitude of P.L. 280’s shortcomings come from and what can be done from there.

Works Cited

Cardenas, Sonia. “Introduction: Terror and Hope.” In Human Rights in Latin America: A Politics lllllof Terror and Hope, 1-18. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Accessed December 9, lllll2020.

Cline, Sarah N. “Sovereignty Under Arrest? Public Law 280 and its Discontents.” (2013).

Goldberg, Carole, and Champagne, Duane. “Final Report: Law Enforcement and Criminal lllllJustice Under Public Law 280.” US Department of Justice. (November 2007). lllll

Goldberg, Carole, and Valdez-Singleton, Heather. “Research Priorities: Law Enforcement in lllllPublic Law 280 States.” US Department of Justice. NCJRS. (July 2005)

Harvey, Matthew. “Fatal Encounters Between Native Americans and the Police.” Federal  lllllReserve Bank of Minneapolis, 2020. lllll

Jimenez, Vanessa J. Song, Soo C. “Concurrent Tribal and State Jurisdiction Under Public Law  lllll280.” American University Law Review 47, no.6 (August 1998): 1627-1707.

Kalt, Joseph P., and Joseph William Singer. “Myths and Realities of Tribal Sovereignty: The Law llllland Economics of Indian Self-Rule.” KSG Faculty Research Working Paper Series lllllRWP04-016, March 2004.

lllll United Nations. 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

United Nations. 2007. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Public Law 280 and U.S. Indigenous Peoples Law

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Liana Hutton
Publish Date
September 27, 2021