Let’s start with the passage and problem. Take up to 3 minutes to read the passage (and take notes, if you usually do so), and up to 1.5 minutes to answer the question:
* ”In its 1903 decision in the case of Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, the United States Supreme Court rejected the efforts of three Native American tribes to prevent the opening of tribal lands to non-Indian settlement without tribal consent. In its study of the Lone Wolf case, Blue Clark properly emphasizes the Court’s assertion of a virtually unlimited unilateral power of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate) over Native American affairs.
But he fails to note the decision’s more far-reaching impact: shortly after Lone Wolf, the federal government totally abandoned negotiation and execution of formal written agreements with Indian tribes as a prerequisite for the implementation of federal Indian policy. Many commentators believe that this change had already occurred in 1871 when – following a dispute between the House and the Senate over which chamber should enjoy primacy in Indian affairs – Congress abolished the making of treaties with Native American tribes. But in reality the federal government continued to negotiate formal tribal agreements past the turn of the century, treating these documents not as treaties with sovereign nations requiring ratification by the Senate but simply as legislation to be passed by both houses of Congress. The Lone Wolf decision ended this era of formal negotiation and finally did away with what had increasingly become the empty formality of obtaining tribal consent.
* “According to the passage, in the case of Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock the Supreme Court decided that
“(A) disputes among Native American tribes over the ownership of tribal lands were beyond the jurisdiction of the Court
“(B) Congress had the power to allow outsiders to settle on lands occupied by a Native American tribe without obtaining permission from that tribe
“(C) Congress had exceeded its authority in attempting to exercise sole power over Native American affairs
“(D) the United States was not legally bound by the provisions of treaties previously concluded with Native American tribes
“(E) formal agreements between the federal government and Native American tribes should be treated as ordinary legislation rather than as treaties”
Okay, now that you’ve got an answer, we’re going to go back to the passage and forget about the question for a moment. What’s the main idea? What might your notes have looked like?
Reading the Passage and Taking Notes
First, if you haven’t already, you may want to take a look at this article: How to Read a Reading Comprehension Passage.
Normally, we’d look for the main idea of the entire passage, plus the point of each paragraph, but we’ve got just one long paragraph here. We should always expect at least one “twist,” so we’re going to want to note where that happens in the one paragraph.
The first sentence tells us that there was a court case decided in 1903. Who won and who lost? The Native American tribes lost because their “efforts (were) rejected.” What were they trying to do? The last part of that sentence is pretty convoluted, but it’s essentially saying that the tribes wanted the right to determine whether non-Indians could use tribal land. If the tribes didn’t consent, then the non-Indians shouldn’t be able to use the land.
But the tribes lost this case. Who won? The next sentence tells us that someone named Clark did a study of the case and talked about the “virtually unlimited unilateral power of Congress over Native American affairs.” Ah, so Congress had power over the tribes. Congress, then, won the right to determine who could use the land and they didn’t have to get the tribes’ consent.
The use of the word “properly” in sentence 2 indicates that the author agrees with Clark on this point, but the beginning of the third sentence says “but he fails to note…” The author, then, thinks Clark’s work was fine in some respects but not in others. Specifically, the case had a much bigger consequence: the government stopped bothering to negotiate or sign agreements with the tribes. Does that mean the government just did whatever it wanted? Maybe – let’s keep reading.
Sentence 4 reinforces the previous idea: many people actually thought the government already started disregarding the tribes even earlier, in 1871, when it stopped signing treaties with the tribes. Sentence 5 begins with the words “but in reality…” Ah! So the author disagrees with what the people in sentence 4 thought. Rather, the author tells us, the government did continue to negotiate agreements after 1871, though they didn’t call the agreements treaties. It wasn’t until the Lone Wolf case, sentence 6 says, that the government really did start to make its own decisions regarding Native American land without getting the consent of the tribes.
My notes might look something like this (everyone’s notes look different – that’s okay as long as you understand the main points):
1903 LW v. H: Cong not need tribe consent
gov’t stopped neg w/NA, did what it wanted
Some think this began 1871 (when treaties abol)
BUT author: no, began after LW
(Abbreviation key: LW = Lone Wolf; H = Hitchcock; NA = Native Americans)
I would also note for myself (but not in writing) that the first half was laying the groundwork about this specific case (Lone Wolf in 1903) and the second half was about WHEN a major change in policy happened (1871 or 1903).
Answering the Question
The question begins “according to the passage,” so I know this is a specific detail question. I should expect to have to go back to the passage in order to answer the question, but I should also be able to use my notes to know where to look. The question continues “in the case of Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock the Supreme Court decided that…” Great: I need to go back to the beginning of the passage, where they talked about the Lone Wolf case.
The first sentence told me that the Native American tribes lost and that someone else was allowed to make decisions about tribal land without getting consent from the tribe in question. The second sentence told me that the court specifically said Congress had all this power. Let’s check the answers to see whether we have enough to find the correct answer; at the least, we should be able to eliminate some wrong answers.
Answer A says that the dispute was “beyond the jurisdiction of the Court.” That would mean that the Court felt it couldn’t make a decision. The Court did make a decision, however, so this can’t be the right answer. The trap here, I think, is in the usage of the word “rejected” in the first sentence. The Supreme Court can refuse to hear a case for various reasons, including that it thinks it doesn’t have jurisdiction, so someone might think the Court rejected the case itself.
Answer B indicates that “Congress had the power” to make decisions about tribal land without getting permission from the tribe. Wow, that’s pretty much exactly what we said before! This answer is looking pretty good but let’s check the other three to make sure.
Answer C claims that the Court decided that Congress did the wrong thing. That’s not what the passage said – according to the passage, the Court sided with Congress. This isn’t correct.
Answer D is a tricky one, I think. I could imagine some Court deciding this – but does this passage actually provide this information? No. There’s nothing in the passage that indicates that the Supreme Court decided that actual signed treaties could just be thrown out or ignored.
Finally, answer E is also a tricky one. Later in the passage, the author does discuss how the government went from signing formal treaties to signing agreements that were then passed as legislation. Why isn’t this the right answer? Read the question again. The question specifically asks us what the Court decided. The Court didn’t decide this – rather, the government decided to do this.
The correct answer is B.
Key Takeaways for Solving Specific Detail RC Problems:
(1) Know how to recognize this type. Specific Detail questions will often contain language such as “according to the passage” or similar. These questions will not contain the words “infer,” “imply,” or “suggest”; those words are reserved for Inference questions. (Click here for an article on RC Inference questions.)
(2) Know what to do with Specific Detail questions. Your first task is to know where to look; sometimes they help by giving you highlighted text, but more often, you have to find the text yourself. That’s where your notes come in handy: use them to know where to look in the original passage. Find the proof in the passage first. Then, check your answer choices against it.
(3) Know what you’re not trying to do as well. On Specific Detail questions, you may not have enough information from the “proof” sentence to prove every wrong answer wrong. Usually, you can both pick the right answer and eliminate a couple of wrong answers using the proof sentence. Sometimes, in order to actively eliminate some wrong answers, you’d have to look at other information elsewhere in the passage. This isn’t necessary if you actually have found an answer for which you do have proof!
* GMATPrep® questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.