Julia Martinez sued the Santa Clara Pueblo in federal court, alleging that the Pueblo’s membership ordinance violated the Indian Civil Rights Act. Martinez was an enrolled member of the Pueblo, but her daughter had been denied enrollment on the grounds that her father, a Navajo Indian, was not a member. The membership ordinance denied enrollment to the children of female members who married outside the tribe, but not children of male members who married outside the tribe. Membership rights included the right to vote in tribal elections, land use rights, hunting and fishing rights, rights to irrigation water, and the right to reside in the Pueblo.
At trial, the district court held that the Indian Civil Rights Act conferred federal court jurisdiction on the claim and that the Pueblo was not entitled to sovereign immunity. On the merits, however, the district court ruled in favor of the Pueblo, holding that the ordinance was traditional tribal law and did not violate the equal protection clause in the Act. The Tenth Circuit reversed on the merits, holding that the Pueblo’s ordinance, enacted only in 1970, was not justified under the compelling interest test of the equal protection clause.
The Supreme Court, per Justice Marshall, reversed, holding that Congress did not intend to waive the sovereign immunity of Indian tribes through the enactment of the Act and further holding that the Act did not confer subject matter jurisdiction over claimed violations of the Act. The Court relied heavily on the notion that, although Congress had imposed certain constitutional limitations on Indian tribes, the federal policy in favor of tribal selfdetermination required that claims of alleged violations must be brought in tribal fora, such as tribal courts.
Martinez has far-reaching implications for Indian tribes. It is easily the most heavily cited Indian law case of the modern era and is one of the strongest judicial statements in favor of tribal self-determination and preservation of tribal culture. Although Martinez was undeniably an accurate statement of federal Indian law, many scholars are troubled by how it operated to legitimate sex discrimination in Indian Country. Many Indian women affected by its outcome have defended the decision, arguing that real change must come from within, not from Congress or the federal courts.
MATTHEW L. M. FLETCHER
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Indian Bill of Rights; MacKinnon, Catharine; Marshall, Thurgood