Tribal law is differentiated from federal and state law. Federal Indian law covers the relationships between federal, state, and tribal governments. Tribal law is the Indian tribes and nations exercise of their self-governance powers by development of the laws which apply within their territories and to their own members and residents on their sovereign lands.
There are currently 574 federally recognized tribes and native villages in the contiguous 48 U.S. states and Alaska. Although there still is no formally reestablished government-to-government relationship between the federal government and Native Hawaiian community, there is an administrative process in place. In addition, there are indigenous tribes that are state recognized through a formal recognition process. There are others still that are not recognized by either federal or state governments.
When starting your research on tribal law, it may be helpful to start with secondary sources. There are selected resources in this guide. The National Indian Law Library (NILL) is one of those great sources. Researching American Indian Tribal Law by David E. Selden is a short article published in The Colorado Lawyer in 2014 and provides basic tips for research. Selden was the law librarian of National Indian Law Library and, although the article focuses on their collection, it may help guide your search in our library. The NILL's website also links to selected Indian Law Research Guides. Another source of primary tribal law is the Tribal Court Clearinghouse which provides access to a vast number of tribe's own laws.
When researching a tribe's legal system, you may want to start with information about the tribe and the types of primary sources you will need for your research. The National Indian Law Library's Tribal Law Gateway is an index by tribe listing sources for tribal constitutions, codes, and court opinions. The library also provides these helpful "How To Find" tips for locating the types of sources you may need:
Another useful resource is the Native Nations Institute Indigenous Governance Database. The database provides free access to 1500 video, audio, and text resources. The database is searchable by native nation, format, and search terms. An account is required to access the content, but it is free.
The following resources are available for free. These resources are supported by both government and private organizations, and depend on funding as well as cooperation from the various tribes in making the information available.
The following resources require either a subscription or a login code. Generally these resources will only be available through the Law Library to law students, not to undergraduate students. However, individual professors may provide or request limited access to these resources for select classes or projects.
The commercial databases - Lexis Advance, Westlaw Edge, and VersusLaw - all cover tribes unevenly. A database might have just a few cases from a given tribal court or it might have dozens of cases from multiple tribes each year. The Indian Law Reporter published only selected cases, usually just a handful a year. Coverage also varies over time, even within one database system.