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

 Federally recognized tribes are governed by federal law and the law of their sovereign governments, making legal research more complex.

American Indian law encompasses legal issues arising between tribes, the Federal government, and states; therefore, legal research often requires research into the materials for all three jurisdictions. Because sovereign tribes have their own governmental systems comprised of executive, legislative, and judicial bodies, individual legal issues are adjudicated by the tribe, requiring research into the tribe's primary law and secondary materials.

The Federal Primary Law page provides information on discrete collections of case law, the U.S. Code, and regulations specific to tribes. Please see the Treaties page for information and resources related to treaties between tribes, the Federal government, states, and foreign countries. 

Tribal Sovereignty

Article I, section 8 of the Constitution protects the sovereignty of recognized Native American tribes. The relationship between sovereign tribes and the federal government is defined by three Supreme Court cases, known as the Marshall Trilogy:


A Note on Nomenclature When Researching and Writing

The Library of Congress Classification system uses the term American Indian as its subject classification for materials about the indigenous tribes of the United States. For more targeted results when researching search for the official or colloquial name of the tribe.

Multiple terms are commonly used to describe the indigenous peoples of the United States as a whole, including "Native American," "American Indian," or "indigenous." However, many tribes and individuals reject this nomenclature and prefer to define their name. Tribal government websites are good resources for identifying a tribe's official or preferred name. 

Federally Recognized Tribes

The federal government currently recognizes 574 American Indian tribes and Alaska Native entities. *Note: The Bureau of Indian Affairs publishes notices of the current list annually in the Federal Register

Per the Bureau of Indian Affairs, "[a] federally recognized tribe is an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation, and is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs."

The requirements for recognition are defined by the Procedures for Federal Acknowledgment of Indian Tribes, 25 CFR 83, with authority emanating from 5 U.S.C. 301, 25 U.S.C. 2, 9, 479a-1, and 43 U.S.C. 1457.

Some tribes are recognized by individual states, but not by the Federal government. Tribal governments recognized by a state are empowered by that state's constitution, statutes, and courts. There are groups that identify as Native American tribes but do not have state or federal recognition. 

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