A federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1151, defines “Indian country.” The definition, originally utilized to delineate federal criminal jurisdiction and later extended to civil purposes, was used subsequently by the Supreme Court to determine the scope of tribal civil jurisdiction, and conversely whether states are presumed to lack jurisdiction over Indians. Enacted in 1948, the statute codified the rulings of several Supreme Court cases from the early 1900s. Section 1151 provides that Indian country includes:
- all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and including rights-of-way running through the reservation,
- all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a state, and
- all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.
In Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, 522 U.S. 520 (1998), the Court interpreted the undefined term “dependent Indian communities” in the context of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971. The Village of Venetie had sought to impose a tax on a State contractor, and the State sued to enjoin collection of the tax. The Court said that the term refers to a category of lands that are neither reservations nor allotments, and that satisfy two requirements — they must have been set aside by the federal government for the use by Indians as Indian land, and they must be under federal superintendence. The first requirement ensures that land is occupied by an Indian community. The second guarantees that the Indian community is sufficiently “dependent” on the federal government.
The Venetie Court held that, in the case before it, there was no set-aside because the ANCSA had by its terms revoked all but one Indian reservation within Alaska. The land in question was unrestricted, could be sold to non-Natives, and put to non-Native use by the Village. Likewise, the federal superintendence requirement was not satisfied because there was no active control of the lands.