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Native American Law: An Overview

Although all U.S. citizens are subject to federal and state authority, those who classify as indigenous peoples have a recognized sovereign authority. According to federal law, this authority affords them the right to self-government in many important areas. The rules regard Indian tribes as being their own nations that are distinct from the U.S. government, U.S. states and other countries. Native peoples law extends to Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives who live in the United States.

Tribal Law Basics

The idea behind giving recognized tribes their own authority to govern dates back to ideas of tribal sovereignty, or supreme legal authority. As native tribes interacted with colonists from Europe and later the people of the United States, their powers, ownership of land and other rights were often impacted negatively. At the same time, courts commonly recognized their ability to govern their affairs internally. Some Supreme Court justices noted that Native Americans deserved special legal protections to prevent them from losing their rights completely.

Individual tribes enact their own laws and codes to deal with everything from zoning and historic site preservation to taxation and criminal procedures. They may also create constitutions and bylaws defining how their governmental structures should operate.

Typical Tribal Law Cases

Modern tribal law has grown to encompass many different types of legal proceedings, and the issue of indigenous sovereignty is far from settled. In addition to overseeing disputes between tribe members, Indian Tribal Courts may also handle cases involving non-member parties that engage in practices that put the welfare of tribes at risk. For instance, one Supreme Court ruling upheld this principle by deciding that a tribal court couldn't adjudicate a claim of discrimination where a non-Indian financial institution sold land inside a tribal reservation to people who weren't tribal members.

Cases regarding Native American laws commonly involve federal and state statutes. For instance, the federal Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 limited the power of tribal lawmakers to subject people to double jeopardy or self-incrimination. Historical treaties between individual tribes and the government, presidential executive orders and Bureau of Indian Affairs determinations also continue to impact the civil and criminal rights of different tribes and their members.

What are Native American Law Attorneys, and Who Might Seek Legal Aid in Tribal Law?

Tribal law attorneys work to clarify the many nuances of native peoples law and sovereignty matters. Their clients may include:

  • Tribe members who want to file or defend themselves from claims involving other tribal members
  • Corporations and groups that operate on behalf of tribes or under tribal authority
  • Non-members whose actions conflict with tribal law
  • Tribe members who get involved in civil matters in states that have jurisdictional rights, such as California, Alaska, Nebraska, Minnesota, Oregon and Wisconsin

Native peoples law can be complex. In addition to minor civil matters, it may touch on high-profile battles between government authorities and tribes that seek to protect their water, land and environmental resources from exploitation.

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