The Evidence of Christian Nationalism In Federal Indian Law: The Doctrine of Discovery, Johnson v. McIntosh, and Plenary Power


The Johnson v. McIntosh decision,1 handed down by Chief Justice JohnMarshall in 1823, has long been heralded as one of the first federal Indian law cases to define the nature of land title for American Indians. Complex and ambiguous in content and style, and now layered with over a century and a half of judicial application, the Johnson ruling has left a legacy that most scholars and Indian law practitioners unquestioningly refer to as the beginning point of federal Indian law.

This Article contends that Johnson was premised on the ancient principle of Christian dominion and a distinction between paramount rights of “Christian people” and subordinate rights of “heathens” or non-Christians. TheChristian/heathen distinction found in Johnson constitutes the tacit, underlying basis of “all subsequent determinations of Indian right[s].”

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