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American Indian and Indigenous Law Resources

About this Guide

The purpose of this guide is to provide an overview of resources available to start research in American Indian and Indigenous Law. This guide focuses on researching federal Indian law and American Indian tribal law. Many of the resources used in federal Indian law are the same used in researching other areas of federal law.

If you need additional assistance finding Tribal law resources please contact a Reference Librarian.

Federal Indian Law covers the relationships between federal, state, and tribal governments.

Tribal Law is the Indian tribes' and nations' exercise of their self-governance powers by development of the laws which apply within their territories and to their own members and residents on their sovereign lands.

What is the correct terminology: American Indian, Indian, Native American, Indigenous, or Native?

The Indigenous Peoples who inhabited what is now the United States prior to contact with European colonizers called themselves by many names.  When Christopher Columbus landed on islands in the Caribbean Ocean and the northern coast of South America, he called the Indigenous people he met ‘Indians’, believing wrongly that he had landed in India.  

All of these terms - American Indian, Native American, Indigenous or Native - are acceptable when speaking generally.  The term Indian is used in the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes.  Native American has been widely used but is falling out of favor with some groups, and the terms American Indian or Indigenous American are preferred by many Native people. When talking about Native groups or people, use the terminology the members of the community use to describe themselves. Whenever possible, Native people prefer to be called by their specific tribal name.  The Inuit, Yup'ik, and Aleut Peoples in the Arctic see themselves as culturally separate from Indians.  And remember, there is no one single American Indian culture or language.  Smithsonian, The Impact of Words and Tips for Using Appropriate Terminology: Am I Using the Right Word? Native Knowledge 360° Education Initiative. (no date)

Why this is Important

The United States has three systems of government, federal, state, and tribal, "Each of the three sovereigns has its own judicial system, and each plays an important role in the administration of justice in this country."  Sandra Day O’Connor, Lessons from the Third Sovereign: Indian Tribal Courts, 33 Tulsa L.J. 1, 1 (1997); See also, Elizabeth Reese. The Other American Law. 73 Stan.L.Rev. 555 (2021).

Tribal powers are inherent rather than derived from the federal government and Tribal nations possess all powers of a sovereign government except as limited by lawful federal authority. See, Worcester v Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515, 559 (1832) The federal government has limited inherent tribal authority by the Constitution, by treaty, by statute, and in some instances, by judge-made federal common law. Cohen's Handbook of Federal Indian Law. § 4.02. (Neil Jessup, ed, 2019).

There are 574 federally recognized Tribes in the 48 contiguous states and Alaska. Indian Entities Recognized by and Eligible to Receive Services from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, 89 Fed. Reg. 2112 (Jan. 8, 2024). One of those tribes is in South Carolina - the Catawba Nation.

In addition to the federally recognized Tribes, there are about 60 state recognized Tribes or tribal entities.  Alexa Koenig and Jonathan Stein, Federalism and the State Recognition of Native American Tribes: A Survey of State-Recognized Tribes and State Recognition Processes across the United States, Santa Clara Law Review, Vol. 48, November 2007   (The National Conference of State Legislatures used to keep a list on their website but it hadn’t been updated since about 2016 and has since been removed.) These Tribes do not have reservations, nor the government-to-government relationship with the federal government. Most of the state recognized tribes are in the eastern U.S., the largest being the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama, and the United Houma Nation of Louisiana.