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Native American Law Research Guide

This guide includes a selection of legal, governmental, and public policy resources in various formats on Native American law.


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Introduction to Native American Law

Research in and the study of tribal law differs from typical legal research in that Federally recognized tribes are governed not only by Federal law, but also by their own sovereign governments. A "federally recognized tribe" is one recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (43 U.S.C. 1601). There are non-Federally recognized tribes and tribes that are recognized by individual states, but not by the Federal government. Tribal governments recognized by states are empowered by their own constitutions, statutes, and courts. These distinctions are important factors, both in practice and in research.

The Primary Law page provides information on resources for laws and legislation, as well as regulations, cases, and treaties. This page includes pertinent Federal materials, as well as resources for individual tribal governments.  

Pre-Contact Tribal Nations Map

American Indian law is a complex system that combines the law of federally recognized tribes, federal law, and state law.  American Indian law does not only pertain to the legal issues arising between tribes, the Federal government, and states; rather it encompasses all areas of law - both civil and criminal. Each tribe has its own system of governance, which can include an executive, judicial, and legislative component.

Tribal Sovereignty

Indian tribes are sovereign under the Constitution (Art. I, sec. 8). The relationship between American indian tribes and the federal government has been defined by three Supreme Court cases:

The Marshall Trilogy

Johnson v M'Intosh 21 US 543 (1823) "...[T]he federal government ha[s] exclusive dominion over affairs with Indian tribes -- exclusive as to individual American citizens" and by extension state governments. (Fletcher, 4)

Cherokee Nation v Georgia 30 US 1 (1831) "Indian tribes...[are] akin to 'domestic dependent nations.'" (Fletcher, 4)

Worcester v Georgia 31 US 515 (1832) "...the laws of states have 'no force' in Indian Country...the Constitution's Supremacy Clause gave powerful effect to Indian treaties as 'the supreme law of the land.'" (Fletcher, 4)

Matthew L.M. Fletcher Federal Indian Law (West Academic, 2016)
General Principles or Federal Indian Law (University of Alaska Fairbanks)

A Note on Nomenclature

The Library of Congress Classification uses the term American Indian for its subject classification of materials on indigenous tribes of the United States. However, a more targeted search can be performed using the official or colloquial name of a specific tribe. 

Indigenous peoples of the United States generally prefer to be called by the name of their tribe or nation.  There are multiple terms that are commonly used to describe the indigenous peoples of the United States as a whole, including "native American," "American Indian," or "indigenous."  The question of "what to be called" is a choice made by each individual, but the terminology in written works can also be guided by that publication's style manual. 

1978 Judicial Land Establishment & Reservations

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