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Do Tribes Have to Follow Federal Laws?

The legal landscape of the United States is a complex tapestry of laws and jurisdictions, with many citizens subject to state and federal laws. But what about Tribal members living on reservations? While they must adhere to federal laws, the question of state laws is less clear-cut.

In this blog, Circling Eagle Law will delve into the unique legal world of Tribal reservations, shedding light on the relationship between Tribal, state, and federal legal systems and offering a more comprehensive understanding of the legal intricacies faced by Tribal members.

The Question of Citizenship

The first step towards understanding the legal landscape of Native American reservations is to acknowledge that Tribal members are both citizens of their respective Tribes and citizens of the United States. This dual citizenship carries a complex array of legal rights and responsibilities.

Do Indian Reservations Have Their Own Laws?

On federal Indian reservations, only federal and tribal laws apply to members of the tribe unless Congress delivers otherwise. Native American tribes are considered sovereign nations, which means they have the authority to govern themselves and establish their laws and customs within the borders of their reservations.

Understanding Sovereignty

This status as a sovereign nation significantly defines how Tribal, state, and federal laws interact. In general, each Tribe has jurisdiction over its members, with authority to establish its rules and regulations, including those related to civil and criminal matters. This means that, in many cases, it is Tribal law, rather than state law, that applies on reservations. Tribal courts also play a significant role in adjudicating disputes among Tribal members and between Tribal members and non-members.

Clearing Up Confusion

However, the power of Tribal jurisdiction is not absolute. A complex web of legal precedents and legislation determines the extent to which Tribal law and state law interact. In certain areas, federal law precedes Tribal and state law. The Major Crimes Act and the Indian Country Crimes Act are two prominent and longstanding federal statutes that delineate the allocation of jurisdiction between Tribal, state, and federal governments.

Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on several cases that have helped to clarify the relationship between state and Tribal law. Some of these landmark cases include Montoya v. United States (1901), which affirmed Tribal sovereignty, United States v. Wheeler (1978), which upheld Tribal authority to prosecute its members, and Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978), which significantly limited Tribal jurisdiction over non-members who commit crimes on reservations.

The Bottom Line

While the extent to which Tribal members are subject to state laws is not always clear and depends on many factors, it is clear that Tribal members must adhere to federal law. Federal jurisdiction applies to major crimes committed by or against Native Americans on reservations, actions involving interstate commerce, and any legal issue in which the United States is involved as a party. This means that issues such as voting rights, social security, and military service all fall under the purview of federal law for Tribal members.

Attorneys That Understand Tribal and Federal Laws

The legal landscape for Tribal members on reservations is a complex and intricate fusion of Tribal, state, and federal jurisdictions. Sovereignty of Native American Tribes plays a crucial role in defining the scope and limits of these legal systems, with each Tribe possessing its distinct legal framework. While Tribal members must adhere to federal law, there is significant nuance to what extent they are subject to state law. Understanding the nature of the legal relationships and the history behind them provides insight into the unique challenges faced by Tribal members and their interactions with the broader legal fabric of the United States.

Call us at (701) 401-7404 if you have questions regarding the jurisdiction of Tribal Courts and federal law.


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