Meyers v. Board of Education: The Brown v. Board of Indian Country

The U.S. Supreme Court announced the constitutional promise of an equal, unified education for African American students by deciding Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, but it would take another forty years before a federal court even addressed the basic question of whether American Indians share a similar right to equal educational opportunities. Meyers v. Board of Education, decided in 1994, is the seminal case addressing the civil rights of American Indians in public education. It is “the Brown v. Board of Indian Country.”This article examines the legal and historical relationship between American Indians and the federal government to provide an understand-ing of why it took forty years for the promise of Brown to be formally recognized by a federal court and delivered to American Indians. A brief lesson in Indian law will introduce the unique treatment that Tribes have received in the courts. The sui generis nature of federal Indian law may provide some insight into why American Indians were still fighting for the rights recognized in Brown into the end of the twentieth century, long after the decision in Brown had become axiomatic for other racial groups.While Indian rights are hinted at in the landmark civil rights decisions, few decisions have actually involved American Indians. This article discusses how the reluctance of courts to address Indian civil rights slowed construction on the road to Brown through Indian country.Finally, the article discusses the decision in Meyers and how the Court and parties brought the promise of Brown to the American Indians of Navajo Mountain in Utah. The article demonstrates how and why the case of American Indian school desegregation gave birth to the unique legal arguments in the Meyers decision. The legal arguments and conclusions are dissected for a full understanding of the leading case on the educational rights of American Indians and its impact on both federal Indian law and education jurisprudence.

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