Williams v. Lee (1959) created a bridge between century-old affirmations of the immunity of Indian territories from state jurisdiction and the tribal self-determination policy of the twentieth century. It has been called the first case in the modern era of federal Indian law. Although no one has written a history of the case, it is generally assumed to be the product of a timeless and unquestioning struggle of Indian peoples for sovereignty. This Article, based on interviews with the still-living participants in the case and on examination of the congressional records, Navajo council minutes, and Supreme Court transcripts, records, and Justices' notes, reveals an unexpected complexity in both Indian and non-Indian contributions to the case and to the era in federal Indian policy in which it emerged.
This history shows that both Williams and the policy developments that surrounded it emerged from consensus about the need for Indian equality and equal opportunity in the twentieth century, but Indian and non-Indian debate whether equality meant full assimilation and termination of the special legal status of tribes or continued respect for the ability of Indian peoples to govern themselves. This Article makes this debate concrete through the story of the Williams family, for whom the state collection action and the resulting seizure of the family sheep herd struck at the heart of Navajo lifestyle and culture. The Article further connects Williams to the momentous debates over African-American integration generated with Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Cooper v. Aaron (1958). Ultimately, I argue, Williams v. Lee and the self-determination movement that followed it represent a choice by American Indians to insist that respect for tribal status was necessary to ensure Indian equality in the modern era. This history and its results provide an important lesson today as federal Indian policies are increasingly attacked as fundamentally inconsistent with fairness and equality.