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Criminal Law in Indian Country Research Guide : Tribal Law Research

This guide is a starting point for research in UNM School of Law's Criminal Law in Indian Country class.

Tribal Law Research Resources

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 or 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!

  • Indexes are crucial in tribal research, especially when you don't have a high level of familiarity in your subject matter.
  • Side note: various resources use the term Indian, Native American, Indigenous, American Indian. There is no agreed terminology.
  • Wait...what's an index? Glad you asked! An index is simply a key to locating information contained in a book or digitized resource. In print it is mostly found at the end of the book or in the last volume of a set. The words in the index are sorted alphabetically. If you are searching an electronic book, treatise, database, etc, - like the American Indian Law Nutshell -  look for a digital index in the table of contents, one is usually available.


Crucial questions to ask...

When researching tribal law, ask...

  1. Is the tribe in question federally recognized?
  2. How is the tribe 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.


The importance of treaties:

Treaty research is a big part of Indian law research...

  • —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."


For more information, visit the UNM Law Library Indian Law Research Guide: Tribal Resources.

Opinions accessed in print

Search our UNM School of Law Library catalog for tribal court opinions, handbooks, and other materials that our library has in print, such as the Indian Law Reporter, reporters of individual tribes, West's Indian Law Reporter, etc.

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