How Native Americans Enforced Their Laws

Early 1800’s England

In London England during the 1700’s, a police force as we refer to one today did not exist. There were courts established by the British Home Secretary and many times the people chosen for these positions were political appointees. This was before Scotland Yard.

Ratcliffe Highway Murders Reward Poster

Justice could be quite subjective. As far as crime was concerned, it flourished, but usually at night when only the dim gaslights lit the narrow streets. At night in some of London’s most transient districts, the “watchman” would be stationed in one of the several booths established along the roadway. Hopefully he stayed awake and didn’t frequent the nearby pubs.

This system of civil protection in England would go on until 1811 when a series of murders called the “Ratcliffe Highway Murders” in the east section of London forced the Home Secretary to revise methods of crime prevention and detection and to upgrade the district courts. There is a very good book about this London incident, “The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811” by authors P.D. James and Thomas A. Critchley. The book is a great read and really offers a lot of insight regarding law enforcement in early 1800’s London.

Native American Governance

So how did the Native Americans govern themselves?

When you explore the subject of the American West in regards to law enforcement you might first assume that the rule of law was brought over to this continent by it’s European forefathers. The assumption would be that the very idea of law enforcement in the American West, the protection of personal property and the maintenance of order came from European concepts, at least the implementation of it here in the United States. The more you read about the subject, the assumption is not exactly accurate.

Cavalry and Indians

It can be argued that any organized society demands some degree of law enforcement. This was not something conceived only by European societies. Every Native American tribe had some type of system of laws. Some might be enforced by only a single leader, others by a council of perhaps a dozen or more chiefs. What is known is that many of the indigenous cultures had some type of police system with accepted powers and duties. These law and enforcement agencies within tribes were in place long before the Europeans migrated westward. It appears that the only problems with the rule of law when the two cultures, European and Native American met in the frontier, was just whose laws were to be followed?

What is Known About Early Native American Law Enforcement

When you research the history of the Western North American Natives and particularly before the years of massive European migration from the east you find that many of the Native American tribes had in effect their own security forces and laws (not codified) and their own style of a “court system”. The Cheyennes had a relatively sophisticated system set up for self governance. There was a “Council of Forty-Four” which was made up of four chiefs from each of the ten Cheyenne tribes plus an additional four elder chiefs.

Alfred Jacob Miller art of Hunting Buffalo, Indians chasing buffalo over a cliff

Along with this there was a select group of warriors chosen to put in effect whatever it was the Council decided upon. This law enforcement group would maintain discipline within the tribes and various bands and would supervise over buffalo hunts and provide military leadership. The warriors in this select group were considered the best of the warriors and in the case of the Cheyennes they were given the collective name of the “Dog Soldiers“. In fact, history ranks these Cheyenne warriors as the best fighters during the years of the American West Indian Wars. The Dog Soldiers would be the enforcement mechanism for the Council of Forty-Four. This of course included the protection of property which was important to the Cheyenne.

The Cheyennes also had a way with dealing with murder. In Cheyenne culture it really didn’t make much difference if the death of another tribe member was caused by accident or not. If the tribe member was deemed guilty of the act he was expelled from the tribe. In effect, he was banished from their society. As a historical side note, the Cheyenne’s still operate the Council of Forty-Four to this present day.

Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle

The Cheyenne Dog Soldiers

The Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, being independent by nature, eventually had a changing effect over Cheyenne society. Their militaristic make up changed the Cheyenne clan system which was deeply rooted in ancient Cheyenne culture. As an example, when a man married a woman he invariably moved to the females home or home tribe. This was the rule for as long as anyone could remember. The Dog Soldiers decided to do it the other way around and this did much to erode this centuries old custom.

When the whites entered Cheyenne territory and the military pushed treaties on the Natives, it was the Dog Soldiers among their ranks who resisted the most. The Dog Soldiers refused to sign treaties. These warriors were not prepared to move to a reservation and be ruled by the white Indian agent. It was this resistance and the wars that followed that further eroded the authority of the Cheyenne chief not to mention that many of the presiding chiefs at the time were killed in battle or massacre. An example was the death of Southern Cheyenne leader and chief Black Kettle during the 1868 Washita River Battle.

Links to three additional Trips Into History articles you’ll enjoy are the Comanche Indians , the Surrender of Crazy Horse and a visit to the American Indian Art Museum in Santa Fe New Mexico.

Indian Territory map

Law Inside Indian Territory

Most historians will point to the “Five Civilized Tribes“, those from the southern part of the country who were the first forced on to the Oklahoma Indian Territory during the early 1800’s, as having the most detailed structure of inner control.

These included the Cherokees and the Seminoles. At that time within the Indian Territory “the light-horse” acted as the primary security arm. They protected the area against whiskey traders, drove out encroaching livestock and in general maintained the order including protecting personal property. Drunkenness was a common problem and the “light-horse” would typically take the offender handcuffed to a tree and tie him up there until he sobered up. Each of the five Civilized Tribes had slight differences in penalties but each did have a structure in place to maintain social order.

There are several excellent museums around the United States that feature interesting art and information regarding the “Dog Soldiers”, the “Light Horse” and Native American societal structure in general. You may wish to add these to your next road trip planner. They include…the Koshare Museum in La Junta Colorado on the campus of Otero Junior College…the Black Kettle Museum in Cheyenne Oklahoma…the Crazy Horse Museum at the Crazy Horse Memorial four miles north of Custer South Dakota…the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

The Westward Migration and American Law

Eventually, when America’s westward expansion grew, the two cultures, European and Native American would meet. The problems which ensued really had little to do with lawlessness as it had to do with possession of land. Land was the reason the Indian Wars were fought. The Indians attacked settlers to drive them from their land. The treaties that were signed and often broken had to do with the distribution of land. If Indians stole livestock, you could argue that this was a response to the immigrant encroachment on their ancestral lands.


Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 dividing Native American land

When you look only at the rule of law you could probably make the argument that certain Native American cultures were more civilized at times than some of the western gold rush towns. Some of these towns that literally sprang up overnight were lawless to the extreme. Drinking, gambling, theft and the occasional murder were not unheard of. Often the law was administered at the end of a rope. At this very same time neighboring Native Americans most likely had a more formal way already in place to keep the peace within their own society. The western lands were sparse and lawmen were far and few in between. Law and order, at least the European variety, did arrive. It just took time.

A History of Policing Their Own

As a final note, it should be pointed out that the western Native Americans were very effective in policing their own, even after their collective surrender to reservations in the late 1880’s.

The reservation police, who were Native Americans themselves, were usually supervised by the local federal Indian agent, but as the years and decades passed, the tribes gradually took over the administrative functions as well. Today, Native American reservations throughout the nation function as a quasi-separate government body and have their own trained police forces on the job with outside police involvement only in cases of certain violent crimes.

Excellent books regarding the subject of Native American governance and society include the Story of the Great American West published by Readers Digest, Ghost Dance by author David Humphreys Miller and The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways by author George Bird Grinnell.

(Indian Territory map from author’s collection. Remaining photos and images from the public domain)