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Legal Information: Tribal

Tribal Law

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Updated: 
March 12, 2010

What is a tribal justice system?

According to US Code Title 25, Chapter 38A, Sec. 3653, the term ''tribal court'', ''tribal court system'', or ''tribal justice system'' means the entire judicial branch, and employees thereof, of an Indian tribe, including, but not limited to, traditional methods for dispute resolution, trial courts, appellate courts, including inter-tribal appellate courts, alternative dispute resolution systems, and circuit rider systems, established by inherent tribunal authority whether or not they constitute a court of record.*

In the Indian Tribal Justice Technical and Legal Assistance Act of 2000, the Congress declared that:

  1. There is a government-to-government relationship between the United States and Indian tribes; and
  2. Indian tribes are sovereign entities and are responsible for exercising governmental authority over Indian lands.**

* 25 USC § 3653
** 25 USCS § 3651

Is it possible to generalize about tribal laws?

It is important to note that it is impossible to completely generalize about tribes. The information here does not apply to all tribes, nor is it written about any one tribe specifically. The tribal court on your reservation, if there is one, or a community center or women's center in your area may have information specifically about your tribe.

The National Tribal Justice Resource Center in its article about Tribal Court History, writes: Approximately 275 Indian nations and Alaska Native villages have established formal tribal court systems. There is widespread variety in the types of forums and the law applied in each is distinctly unique to each tribe. Some tribal courts resemble Western-style judiciaries where written laws and rules of court procedure are applied. An increasing number of tribes are returning to their traditional means of resolving disputes through the use of peacemaking, elders’ councils and sentencing circles.