Introduction to Tribal Governments

Did you know the United States Constitution recognizes that Indian Nations are sovereign governments?

A Brief Introduction to Understanding Contemporary Tribal Governments

"The congress shall have power to…regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes..."
Article 1, Section 8 
United States Constitution

There are 566 federally recognized Indian Nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities and native villages) in the United States. Approximately 229 of these ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse nations are located in Alaska; the rest are located in 33 other states.

The United States Constitution recognizes that Indian Nations are sovereign governments just like Canada and California. The Supreme Court, Congress, United States Presidents, and hundreds of treaties have repeatedly reaffirmed that Indian Nations retain their inherent powers of self-government. Treaties and laws have created a fundamental contract between Indian Nations and the United States: Indian Nations ceded millions of acres of land that made the United States what it is today, and in return received, among other guarantees, the right of continued self-government on their own lands.

"Indian Nations have always been considered as distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original rights, as the undisputed possessors of the soil…The very term “nation” so generally applied to them, means “a people distinct from others.”
Chief Justice John Marshall
United States Supreme Court
Worcester v. Georgia
31 US (6 Pet.) 515, 561(1832)

Tribal self-government serves the same purpose today as it always has: it ensures that Indian Nations remain viable as distinct groups of people. Tribal cultures enrich American life, and tribal economies provide opportunities where few would otherwise exist. Tribal governments also provide basic infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and public buildings and a broad range of governmental services on tribal lands, including education, law enforcement, judicial systems, and environmental protection. 

The status of Indian Nations as a form of government is at the heart of nearly every issue that touches Indian Country. Self-government is essential if tribal communities are to continue to protect their unique cultures and identities. Unfortunately, too few people are aware of the history of Indian people and the purpose of tribal self-government.

About the Guide

The guide An Introduction to Indian Nations in the United States has been developed by the National Congress of American Indians, and seeks to provide a basic overview of the history and underlying principles of tribal governance. The guide also provides information about tribes today to ensure that decision makers and members of the public at large have the information necessary to understand and engage effectively with contemporary Indian Nations.

Download: An Introduction to Indian Nations in the United States.