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Indian and Tribal Law Research  

Last Updated: Jun 8, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Basic Sources

Charles J. Kappler, Indian Affairs: Laws & Treaties (GPO 1904).
KF 8203 1904

Cohen's Handbook on Federal Indian Law (Nell Jessup Newton, et al., eds., Lexis 2012).
KF 8205. A33 2012 (also on Lexis, password required)

William C. Canby, Jr., American Indian Law in a Nutshell (5th ed., West 2009).
KF 8205 .Z9 C36 2009 (also on Westlaw, password required)


Sioux Village, Pine Ridge (1891)


Indian Law vs. Tribal Law

Indian Law and Tribal Law are two distinct, but related areas of law.

  • Federal Indian Law encompasses the law defining the relationship between the  government (mostly the federal government) and the tribes:

Prior to the creation of the United States, the entire land mass it now occupies was owned and governed by hundreds of Indian tribes. These tribes, sovereign nations under international law, were brought into the United States through a colonial process that was partly negotiated and partly imposed. Federal Indian law is the primary mechanism for mediating the resulting intergovernmental relationships among the Indian nations, the United States, and the states of the Union.” Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law (Nell Jessup Newton et al., eds.,  LexisNexis 2005).

  • Tribal Law is the internal law of each sovereign tribe:

“Each Indian nation has the authority, often expressed in an organic document such as a tribal constitution or a treaty with the United States, to legislate for the general welfare of the tribe, its people, and its land… In short, every Indian nation is free to adopt its own laws and be ruled by them, to paraphrase the United States Supreme Court. Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217 (1959).” Matthew L.M. Fletcher, American Indian Tribal Law xxi (Wolters Kluwer 2011).

Sometimes, the issues overlap and you may be researching both Indian and tribal law; other times you may be researching one or the other. This guide covers researching both areas of law.

Blackfeet Repatriation Ceremony


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