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Indigenous Legal Research

Tribal Laws

There are over 550 Native American tribes. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 encouraged tribes to enact their own laws. Tribal laws consist of the codes and constitutions of each tribe, as well as ordinances, resolutions, and regulations.

As sovereigns, Tribes enact laws on similar subjects as other sovereigns, such as criminal law, civil law and civil procedure. Tribes also enact unique laws, such as laws on tribal membership - each tribe prescribes its own rules for membership, usually in its constitution. Tribal membership establishes not only rights and liabilities of individuals, but also relationships between members -  for example, the law of a marriage between two tribal members may be under the jurisdiction of tribal law rather than the state.

FINDING TRIBAL LAWS

Not all laws are written or published. Some tribes have comprehensive coverage in sophisticated databases, but by no means all. Some tribal courts have their written laws and court procedures online, while other tribal websites are often not updated.

The National Indian Law Library's (NILL) (open access) Tribal Law Gateway includes the Codes and Constitutions database - this includes links to over 240 codes and over 400 constitutions. The NILL’s Tribal Law Gateway lists hundreds of tribes with references to their legal publications. NILL contains links to available online versions of tribal constitutions and codes. NILL also provides references for tribal constitutions, case law, and other sources of Indian and tribal law. Although some of the codes are several years old, and for some tribes there are no available laws, the Tribal Law Gateway is the most comprehensive source for tribal law materials, particularly the tribal codes.

For more information on researching Tribal Law, see David Selden, 'Researching American Indian Tribal Law' (2014) 43(2) The Colorado Lawyer 51 (available on open access on the NILL website).

Finding Tribal Cases

Tribes have always had, and continue to retain the sovereign authority to establish and operate their own tribal justice systems.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 encouraged tribes to enact their own laws and establish their own modern tribal courts to resolve conflict and controversy. Modern tribal courts are under tribal control, and are directly oriented to the needs of tribal members. Some tribes have developed a hybrid or blended judicial system, incorporating the dispute resolution elements of indigenous or Code of Federal Regulations courts, and a more modern focus to ensure due process.

There are at least 400 tribal courts. The court systems operating in Indian country vary by tribe. The Indian country judicial system revolves around a core of four legal institutions—Court of Indian Offenses (CFR courts), tribal courts of appeal, tribal courts of general jurisdiction, and indigenous forums. See more information on tribal justice and courts on the Tribal Court Clearinghouse's Tribal Courts webpage (this also provides links to all tribal courts) and the Tribal Justice Resource Centre Tribal Justice webpage. 

The Tribal Court Clearinghouse has a searchable Tribal Court Decisions database (open access). It contain the decisions of approximately 24 tribal courts.

Some of the tribes' websites include published decisions, but by no means all. The Tribal Court Clearinghouse (open access) links to all tribal court websites that include published decisions.

West's American Tribal Law Reporter (UniMelb staff & students) includes Tribal, Appeals and Supreme Court decisions from approximately 24 tribal courts. From the  Westlaw homepage, select Practice Areas > Native American Law > All Tribal Cases. You can then select All West's American Tribal Law Reporter or a particular Tribe.

For more information on tribal courts and researching tribal decisions, see David Selden, 'Researching American Indian Tribal Law' (2014) 43(2) The Colorado Lawyer 51 (available on open access on the National Indian Law Library website).

Tribal Criminal Justice

The US Bureau of Justice Statistics Tribal Courts website includes information on:

For detailed information on tribal criminal law and justice, see: