What is a Tribal Nation?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 24 February 2020
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A tribal nation is usually defined as a domestic dependent sovereign in the United States. Tribal nations are typically made up of members of Native American tribes who governed themselves prior to the arrival of Europeans. In the modern United States (US), many Native American tribes have formed tribal nations, and these typically have all the sovereignty rights of other nations. Members of each of these tribal nations normally enjoy all the rights and privileges of American citizenship, and they may also possess additional rights, such as hunting and land usage rights, as dictated by tribal culture and tradition. Tribal nations typically form their own governments, and retain the power to manage their own internal affairs, including commerce, taxation, private property, and domestic relations.

Members of a tribal nation are not generally obligated to follow state laws in the US. The tribes generally handle their own legal affairs through tribal courts. The tribes also generally can't negotiate with foreign nations or to trade in land with other nations or states.


The concept of domestic dependent sovereign tribal nations is believed to have come about as a solution to the long conflict between Native Americans and European settlers. Many feel that the early US government violated the rights of Native Americans by forcing them to leave their tribal lands and surrender the inherent rights that they enjoyed prior to European settlement. Tribal nations are considered to enjoy their inherent sovereign freedom and rights, while remaining dependent subjects of the United States.

While Native American tribal nations are not usually considered subject to state laws, they are considered subject to rulings by the United States government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They are usually asked to resolve their own legal disputes in tribal courts. The may, however, gain access to US courts if granted permission by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Notable US court decisions regarding the rights of tribal nations include the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Oliphant versus Suquamish Indian Tribe. In this case, the court ruled that tribal nation courts may not prosecute non-members of the tribe. Montana versus US in 1981 gave tribal nations full power to regulate their own internal affairs, including civil authority over non-tribe members residing in the tribal nation. Duro versus Reina in 1990 gave tribal nations the right to refuse access to tribal lands to non-members of the tribe, according to the discretion of tribal governments.

For the most part, tribal nations prefer to resolve their internal disputes and manage their own affairs without intervention from state or US courts. Serious criminal offenses perpetrated on tribal lands are usually tried in state or US courts, even if the perpetrators or victims are tribe members. Each tribal nation is largely free to build its own legal and taxation systems, and to adhere to its own customs, though the United States Congress still retains the authority limit the freedom of tribal governments or to dissolve tribal governments altogether.


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