Williams v. Lee

358 U.S. 217 (1959)

Justice BLACK


  • Lee, a non-Indian, had a permit to own a store on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
  • Williams and his wife, both Navajo Indian, live on the Reservation

Procedural History:

  • Lee brought action to collect for goods sold on credit in the Superior Court of Arizona.
  • Williams moved to dismiss of grounds of lack of jurisdiction. Denied.
  • Judgment entered in favor of plaintiff.
  • Arizona Supreme Court affirmed.


Contentions of parties:

  • Defendant: Arizona court lacks jurisdiction, the Navajo court has jurisdiction.


Whether an Arizona court has jurisdiction over a cause of action arising from a transaction between an Indian and a non-Indian within the Reservation.


An Arizona court does NOT have jurisdiction over a cause of action arising from a transaction between an Indian and a non-Indian within the Reservation because the transaction involved an Indian and took place in the Reservation.


The tribal courts have jurisdiction when a cause of action arises within a Reservation and is either by or against a member.

The state may not infringe on the rights of Reservation Indians to make and be ruled by their own laws.

Rule of Law:

Worcester v. State of Georgia (1832) 6 Pet. 515

A Native Americans tribal nation is a distinct community, occupying its own territory in which the laws of a state can have no force, and which the citizens of the state have no right to enter, but with the assent of the members of the nation themselves, or in conformity with treaties, and with the acts of Congress. The whole intercourse between the United States and such a nation, is, by the United States Constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States. http://www.lexis.com/research/xlink?app=00075&view=full&searchtype=get&search=358+U.S.+217

Navajo Treaty of 1868: p. 252. Internal affairs of Navajo were to be exclusively under tribal jurisdiction. Peace in exchange for federal aid, protection, and land grants.


* History of State and Indian interactions:

  • Georgia wanted to extend its power to prohibit Cherokee Indians (on their land) to pass laws, have courts, and permit outsiders within their territory without the permission of the Georgia governor.
  • In Worcester v. State of Georgia (1832), Georgia wanted to punish a white man who was licensed by the federal government to practice as a missionary for his refusal to leave the Reservation. The Court held that Georgia law did not apply within the Reservation.
  • There is an assumption that the states have no power to regulate the affairs of Indians on a Reservation.
  • The court made modifications to Worcester: (1) cases where essential tribal relations were not involved & (2) cases rights of Indians would not be jeopardized (3) cases in which non-Indians commit crimes against each other.
  • Nevertheless, tribal courts had jurisdiction in cases by or against an Indian.
  • Congress has progressively strengthened Indian authority with the goal of making Indians American citizens when (1) they are ready and (2) they will not be at a disadvantage.

* History with the Navajo in particular underlies the same principle as Worcester: exclusive tribal jurisdiction over Indian affairs.

* A state can assume jurisdiction over a Reservation if either its people or legislature vote to assume the responsibility of doing so. Arizona has not voted to do so.

* The exercise of Arizona jurisdiction in this case would (1) undermine the authority of tribal courts over Reservation affairs and (2) infringe on Navajo right of self-government.

* It is immaterial that plaintiff is non-Indian: (1) the transaction was on the Reservation and (2) it was with an Indian.

Court’s Order: