Well over 550 Native American tribes in 35 states have received recognition from the federal government as sovereign nations. Each of these tribal nations has the right to create its own government and laws. While the federal government retains the authority to enact laws that affect Native Americans, it typically uses this power only to provide services to tribes. Thus, tribal governments create and manage most of the institutions and agencies that affect the daily lives of Native Americans on reservations and in other "Indian country."
The responsibilities of tribal governments include providing infrastructure on tribal lands, such as transportation, electricity, and communications networks. Tribal governments also oversee schools, health care, and land use. They create and enforce laws, and they protect the safety of tribal members through organs such as tribal police departments and emergency responder services. Tribal governments issue licenses for certain types of businesses on tribal lands, and they collect taxes to support their operations. They can define who is considered a member of the tribe, and they can exclude people from access to tribal lands.
Powers Withheld from Tribal Governments
Tribes do not hold powers that have been removed by treaties with the federal government, express actions by Congress, and court decisions determining that certain powers are subject to federal law or inconsistent with federal policies. Similar to states, tribes cannot engage in foreign relations, go to war, or issue their own currency.
In theory, tribal governments can receive federal funding and services just as local and state governments can, despite retaining their sovereignty. In reality, tribes sometimes suffer from reduced access to this assistance, which can affect the standard of living on tribal lands.
Structure of Tribal Governments
The organizational document of a tribal government may consist of a formal constitution or articles of association that impose a modern structure. In other cases, tribes have established a hybrid form of government that incorporates traditional elements. If a tribe does not create a formal instrument such as a constitution, the tribe may submit organizational documents for approval by the US Secretary of the Interior. The founding document usually sets up a tripartite system of government similar to the federal and state governments, consisting of legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Checks and balances apply as in federal and state governments, preventing any branch from exercising powers granted to any other branch. Some tribes have created a single organ of government, though, which usually involves a Tribal Council and a Tribal Chair.
Often known as a council, the legislative branch of a tribal government usually consists of members of the tribe who are elected by eligible voters. (Some tribes allow all eligible adult tribal members to join the council.) In most cases, the council creates laws, collects and allocates funds, and oversees the operations of the tribal executive branch. Meanwhile, the chief executive of the tribe, often known as a chairperson, presides over the legislative and executive branches. They are typically elected as well. Once the Secretary of the Interior recognizes the authority of the tribal council and the chief executive, they represent the interests of the tribe. The council and the chief executive can negotiate on behalf of the tribe with federal, state, and local governments.
Tribal Self-Governance and Tribal Consultation
The federal government has allowed tribes to influence the creation and management of federal programs, rules, and policies that affect them. Under the principles of tribal self-determination and self-governance, tribal governments may administer programs and services that were normally managed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Meanwhile, the principle of tribal consultation requires the federal government to discuss rules, policies, or other actions with tribes who will be affected by them.