Skip to main content

Kudos: History Student Analyzes Court Case That Threatens Native American Rights

April 1, 2016

An article by Andrew Bard Epstein (History) was published in The Nation magazine in December.
Epstein’s essay, “Dollar General Takes Its Case Against Indigenous Sovereignty to the Supreme Court,” explains the larger significance of a legal controversy between the Dollar General Corporation and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. If Dollar General wins, “Indian nations might lose one of the remaining paths they have for bringing justice to those who commit wrongs on their land,” Epstein says.
The case began over a decade ago, when a 13-year-old Choctaw boy claimed he was sexually molested by the manager of the Dollar General Store on his people’s land in Mississippi, where he was working in a job-training program. The Supreme Court had previously ruled that Indians could not prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed against tribal members on their land. “Only federal prosecutors could pursue criminal charges against non-Indians, which they declined to do in 67 percent of cases,” Epstein notes, including this one. The victim’s family then sued the manager and Dollar General for civil damages in Choctaw Tribal Court. Since then, Dollar General has tried unsuccessfully to convince courts both on and off the reservation that the Choctaw nation lacked civil jurisdiction over non-Indians, enlisting powerful allies to their side, including railroad and banking companies, the Retail Litigation Center, and a handful of state governments. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case last December and is likely to issue a verdict this spring.

The article is part of Epstein’s larger interests in Indigenous sovereignty and U.S. colonialism. While his previous research focused on Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) land rights in upstate New York in the 20th century, he is currently developing a dissertation project under the supervision of Ned Blackhawk about the removal of Indigenous peoples from their historic eastern homelands in the early 19th century and the centrality of this process for U.S. economic development.

Epstein earned his undergraduate degree from SUNY-Binghamton, where he first connected with Indigenous issues, covering the Onondaga Nation’s land rights action for a local newspaper. He completed an MA in History and Native American Studies at the University of Georgia in 2012, and began his PhD studies at Yale in 2013. He coordinates the Yale Group for the Study of Native America.