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Tribal Sovereignty

Sovereignty is the legal right of a government to determine its own destiny, make laws, collect taxes, and protect the rights and welfare of its citizens. The inherent sovereignty of Indian tribes has been recognized by the U.S. government and must be protected. 

Tribal sovereignty is inherent, not granted by other governments.

Indian tribes existed before the United States was formed. This means tribes are inherently sovereign.  Their sovereignty is something they always possessed; it is not something that was granted to them by the U.S. or any other government.

Tribal sovereignty has been recognized in treaties, court decisions, and the Constitution. 

The U.S. government has entered into many treaties with Indian tribes, thereby acknowledging tribes as self-governing sovereign entities. Several Supreme Court decisions have upheld this relationship reinforcing tribes' status as sovereign nations. The Constitution also recognizes tribal sovereignty. Article One gives Congress the power, "To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states and with Indian tribes."

Tribes have the powers of sovereigns.

As sovereign nations, Indian tribes have certain powers over their members and their territories.  These include the authority to:

  • establish and maintain systems of government;
  • put land into trust;
  • enact laws;
  • and enforce these laws in tribal courts.


As sovereign nations, tribes have the right to sovereign immunity.

Tribes, like the federal government and states, have sovereign immunity from lawsuits.

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