Skip to Main Content

American Indian Law: A Beginner's Guide

US Federal Law

A key principle of American Indian law is the right to tribal sovereignty, or the power of self-government. The United States Constitution at art. I, sec. 8, cl. 3 (sometimes referred to as the Indian Commerce Clause) recognizes this inherent authority. That clause provides Congress with the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes[.]” Federal courts have interpreted this clause to mean that while tribes have the right to self-government, that sovereignty is subject to an overriding federal authority. Cohen's Handbook of Federal Indian Law describes the unique relationship between the federal government and sovereign tribes:

Perhaps the most basic principle of all Indian law supported by a host of decisions . . . is the principle that those powers which are lawfully vested in an Indian tribe are not, in general, delegated powers granted by express acts of Congress, but rather inherent powers of a limited sovereignty which has never been extinguished. What is not expressly limited [by Congress] remains within the domain of tribal sovereignty.

This section of the guide discusses American Indian law resources from the three federal government branches, as well as treaties between the United States and American Indian tribes. Although this guide focuses on American federal and tribal laws, researchers who are interested in learning more about the interplay between state laws and American Indian tribes may wish to review some of the resources listed below under the tab “State Law Resources.”

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional digital content are provided when available.

The following resources link to research guides created by law libraries on the topic of federal American Indian law.

The websites linked below provide information on topics involving state laws and American Indian tribes, including criminal court jurisdiction and state recognized tribes.