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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 by Federal law and tribal sovereign governments. A recognized tribe is one identified 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 a state are empowered by that state's own constitution, statutes, and courts. 

The Federal Primary Law page provides information on discrete collections of caselaw, 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. 

American Indian law can encompass the legal issues arising between tribes, the Federal government, and states, as well as all other 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, known as the Marshal 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 When Researching and Writing

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. 

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 preferred name is defined by each tribe and individual. Websites for tribal governments are good resources for identifying the official or preferred name. 

1978 Judicial Land Establishment & Reservations

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