The case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 US 543 (1823), is taught in many property law classes and is the only information given to new law students about the property rights of Indian nations. However, the case is often misunderstood as denying title to those nations. A close reading of the opinion, in light of three later cases decided in the early 19th century, reveals that the Supreme Court intended to recognize "Indian title" while granting the United States a right of first refusal if tribes sought to sell property on the open market to non-Indians. Far from denying tribal property rights, Justice Marshall's opinion in this case, as explicated by later cases, actually sought to protect tribal title from expropriation by the United States unless the tribes voluntarily consented to the transfer of land.
While it is true that the opinion contains offensive and racist language, assumptions, and arguments, it is important not to ignore the ways in which the opinion sought to criticize, as well as justify, conquest and to put a halt to it in the future. Of course, history did not turn out that way but it did result in our current reality where conquest was incomplete. There are 567 federally-recognized Indian nations in the US and if property law professors teach students that conquest was complete and that tribes have no property rights in their land, those messages have current consequences for tribes trying to exercise sovereignty and property rights today. The truth is that Indian nations have both sovereignty and property rights over their lands and they do not have a mere license or "permission from the whites to occupy" (as the Supreme Court suggested in the 1955 case of Tee-Hit-Ton v. United States).
Both property law professors and scholars of federal Indian law should understand both the offensive racist reasoning in the decision and the ways in which the opinion represents one of the most pro-Indian nation decisions in the history of the Supreme Court. Treating the opinion as simply a racist relic of the past, like the Dred Scott decision, and nothing more, deprives Indian nations of the ability to use the case (and later cases like it) as a bulwark against further non-consensual deprivation of tribal property rights. And such a misreading of the case infects current politics by suggesting that tribes are being unreasonable when they seek to have their property rights be given equal respect to the property rights of non-Indians.
The importance of recognizing that federal law does protect tribal title can be seen easily if one simply considers the Standing Rock Sioux's opposition to a pipeline that threatens their ancient lands—lands that are currently protected both by tribal law, a treaty with the United States, and federal statutes and common law. Understanding Indian title as an estate in land that is every bit as powerful as the fee simple—as equally "sacred" in the words of the Supreme Court—is the message we should be sending to new lawyers, not the opposite.