Joel A. Holt


In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the New World. He brought with him dreams of gold, a sword, fire and disease. In doing so, he began the systematic annihilation of the Western Hemisphere’s indigenous people. The torture and genocide of Native Americans, motivated by desire for gold and land, did not end with the Spaniards: it carried on through English rule and young America’s taming of the west.

It is estimated that the indigenous population of the continental United States at the time of first contact was between five and ten million. According to the 2000 census, the Native American population (including Alaskan natives) was just under 2.5 million: a reduction of over seventy-five percent from the highest estimation of native population prior to Columbus’ landing. But even this is an improvement, considering the near extinction of Native Americans evidenced by the 1890 census.

In response to this apparent genocide, the United States Supreme Court created the trust doctrine – a principle that the United States owes general trust responsibilities in its dealings with the Indian people. Within the last quarter of a century, Indian plaintiffs have come to rely on the federal-Indian trust relationship to impute liability in money damages on the United States for breaches of its trust responsibilities. United States v. White Mountain Apache Tribe is an example of this reliance.

This Note examines the origin, evolution, elements and application of the trust doctrine. Part II focuses on the origin, evolution and modern interpretation of the trust doctrine. Part III provides a statement of the facts, the procedural history and the Unites States Supreme Court decision in United States v. White Mountain Apache Tribe. Part IV analyzes the White Mountain Apache Tribe decision, argues that based on fundamental legal arguments, the Court decided the case incorrectly, and offers suggestions for reformulating the trust doctrine or reestablishing Indian sovereignty.