Native American Law

Tribes have substantial control over their internal affairs, based on their history of independence.

A government may contain executive, legislative, and judicial branches, or a single tribal council.

Some tribes have independent justice systems, while others rely on federally operated courts.

The BIA has altered its policies over time from subjugating tribes to partnering with them.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Does a state hold authority over tribal nations within its borders?
    No, a state generally does not hold authority over tribal nations within its borders. The principle of tribal sovereignty gives authority over relations with tribes to the federal government. In recent generations, though, the federal government has allowed states to influence certain activities on reservations to a limited extent.
  • What do tribal governments do?
    Tribal governments create and enforce laws, and they provide public safety services, such as police departments and emergency responders. They regulate businesses on tribal lands, collect taxes, build infrastructure, and oversee land use, education, and health care. A tribal government can decide who is a member of the tribe and exclude certain non- members from entering their lands.
  • What is the jurisdiction of independent tribal courts?
    Independent tribal courts hold civil jurisdiction over Native Americans and non-Native Americans who live or do business on reservations. They hold criminal jurisdiction over alleged violations of tribal laws by tribal members who live or do business on reservations. Independent tribal courts also handle matters related to divorce, family law, guardianships, and trusts.
  • Which types of cultural property can be repatriated to Native American tribes?
    These include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. Funerary objects are items that contained human remains or were placed with them for burial. Sacred objects are ceremonial items essential to Native American religions. Objects of cultural patrimony are items owned by a tribe as a whole that would have been inalienable when the tribe lost possession of them.
  • When do Native American tribes have a right to hunt and fish off their reservations?
    Some tribes have a right to hunt and fish off their reservations through a treaty with the federal government that specifically provides for this right. Other tribes have this right if the federal government reduced or eliminated a reservation but did not terminate tribal hunting and fishing rights for the original area of the reservation.
View More FAQs ›
Popular Topics
  • Rights to Native American Land and Natural Resources
    The federal government holds vast tracts of land and natural resources in trust for Native Americans, but tribes have gained increasing authority over land use and development.
  • Religious Freedom for Native Americans
    First Amendment rights to freedom of religious belief, exercise, and expression apply to Native American religions, and the government generally must permit tribes to access and use religious sites.
  • Cultural Property of Native Americans
    Federal, state, and tribal laws provide certain protections, but limited scope and inconsistent enforcement have resulted in persistent threats to the survival of some tribal cultures.
  • Hunting and Fishing Rights of Native Americans
    Tribes may have rights to hunt and fish off reservations, but states can regulate these activities if they do not discriminate against Native Americans and allow them a fair apportionment of fish.
  • Gaming Regulations for Native Americans
    Tribes generally can conduct gaming operations on reservations without complying with state regulations, but they must reach agreements with states to operate most standard types of casino games.
View More Topics ›