The Cherokee Nation was declared sovereign by the United States Supreme Court in Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832). According to Chief Justice John Marshall's ruling, this meant that Georgia had no power to implement state laws on its territory.
In response to the decision, the General Assembly of Georgia passed an act incorporating all of the territory within its borders, including what is now eastern Oklahoma, into a single county called "Atkinson County." The act also included provisions for electing a judge and prosecuting attorney for the new county court. The county court would be responsible for trying cases involving Indians who had been arrested for crimes against Georgia citizens.
Cherokee officials objected to the creation of Atkinson County, claiming that it violated their sovereignty because it interfered with their right to govern themselves. In 1833, the Cherokee Nation filed a suit before the Supreme Court seeking to have Georgia's attempt at annexation overturned.
In February 1834, the Court issued its opinion in the case. It concluded that because Indian nations were independent countries they could make treaties with other nations or with the federal government. In this case, the Cherokee Nation was both negotiating with and receiving aid from the United States government. As such, they had the right to agree to be subject to federal law.
The United States Supreme Court explored its authority to enforce the rights of Native American "nations" against the states in the decisions of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). The state of Georgia established a series of legislation in 1828 that deprived local Cherokee Indians of their privileges. The tribe filed suit in the Supreme Court arguing that these actions violated its right to self-government as well as its right to exclude foreign citizens and governments from entering into treaties with the United States. In both cases, the Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee Nation.
These two cases are significant because they outline what role the Supreme Court will play in enforcing the rights of Native Americans against the states. Until then, Congress was responsible for protecting tribal interests.
In addition, the Court's decision in these cases demonstrates how vital it is for tribes to have their own courts capable of handling serious issues before them. If a tribe does not have this type of court system, there is no other option but for them to turn to the federal government for help.
Finally, these cases show that even though Native Americans were not considered citizens of any country, they still had rights that could not be taken away from them without due process of law.
The Cherokees claimed that the legislation violated their sovereign rights as a country and infringed on their treaty ties with the US. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to overturn Georgia's statutes.
In 1835, the Supreme Court upheld the authority of Congress to extinguish Indian lands. But it also ruled that the federal government had exceeded its power when it passed laws against Indians without their consent. The court ordered Congress to give the Cherokees adequate compensation for their land. When Congress failed to act, the court issued an injunction preventing any further seizures of Cherokee property.
In 1939, the federal government signed a settlement agreement with the Cherokees providing for compensation and tribal self-determination. The tribe elected to accept the deal and dissolve itself into the state of Oklahoma.