Indian Law Research Guide: Tribal Resources: Tribal Research: Getting Started

Tribal Law Research vs. Federal Indian Law Research

When researching tribal law, it is helpful to:

  • Distinguish between: "federal Indian law, which deals with dealing the relationship between a tribal government and the federal government (and, by implication, the limited dealings with state government);" and "tribal law, dealing with the domestic law of any particular tribe; or more the domestic laws of various tribes."
  • Consider tradition, including that of oral laws and the oral tradition; custom, and culture.
  • Ask whether you need to consult primary versus secondary authority.
  • Consider outcome, audience, and jurisdiction.
    • When considering jurisdiction, there are many questions to ask, including:
      • What is the status of the place? e.g. "Indian Country"
      • What is the status of the parties? e.g. Indian, non-Indian, etc.

Note that tribes are extra-constitutional, and that the Freedom of Information Act does not apply in gaining access to tribal law.

Search terms and Tribal Law

Use of various terms when searching tribal law including for a specific tribe depends on:

  • The time period you are looking at; for example, the name of the tribe may have changed.
  • Also, consider other spellings and pronunciations or various names, as there may be no consensus.

Secondary resources and Indexes

Indexes are crucial in tribal research, when you don't have much familiarity in your subject matter.

Side note: various resources use the term Indian, Native American, Indigenous, American Indian. There is no agreed terminology.

When researching tribal law, ask these questions...


  1. Ask whether the tribe in question is federally recognized.
  2. Ask how the tribe is organized; in a council? Is the court is a separate branch, or does it fall under legislative branch? Or judicial branch...
  3. Is the jurisdiction subject to Public Law 280? Even if it does, it might depend on the tribe.

Side note: treaties

—Indian treaties "help define the specifics of federal and tribal relationships for any particular tribe, create the obligations of the federal government to particular tribes, and the interpretation of those treaties defines the nature and extent of those obligations. When there is a question of what the rights of a particular tribe are, attorneys should look to that tribe’s treaty with the U.S. to find the language creating the right to determine its existence and extent."

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