Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Indian Law
Who is considered to be an Indian?
Indian tribes have the authority and power to define their own requirements
for membership. Tribal membership is most frequently defined by blood
quantum, however, some tribes also have requirements involving reservation
residency, descendency from original roles and enrollment deadlines. There
is also a federal definition of "Indian" for purposes of federal
benefits. That definition typically requires membership in a federally
recognized tribe or being one-quarter Indian blood.
Who governs an Indian Tribe?
Indian tribes possess inherent powers of self-government that predate
the establishment of the United States. Some Tribes and Pueblos maintain
traditional forms of government. Others have adopted constitutions and
established tribal councils elected by democratic vote pursuant to the
Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the follow up Oklahoma Indian Welfare
Act of 1936.
What is the role of the Federal government with regard to Indian Tribes?
The United States has what federal courts have described as plenary power
to regulate Indian affairs. The United States, through its various departments
within the Executive branch, stands in the role of trustee for Indian
tribes in many matters. Indian tribes are subject to federal laws of general
application unless a specific law provides otherwise.
What is the role of state government with regard to Indian Tribes?
Generally, state governments have no role regarding Indian tribes and
have no authority over tribes or Indians with Indian Country unless specifically
authorized by Congress.
What Is a federally recognized Indian Tribe?
A federally recognized Indian Tribe is a group of Indians recognized by
the United States as an Indian Tribe. Recognition is established as a
result of historical and continued existence of a tribal government; by
Executive Order or legislation; and through the federal recognition process
recently established by Congress.
The recognition establishes a tribe as an entity with the capacity to
engage in government-to-government relations with the United States or
individual states. These are not powers granted to the tribe by the United
States but are powers inherent to Indian tribes as units of government
that long preceded the existence of the United States.
What is Indian Country?
Indian country is defined by federal law as including:
1. All land within the limits of any Indian reservation, under the jurisdiction
of the United States.
2. All dependent Indian Communities within the borders of the United States.
3. All Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished.
What is Trust Land?
Trust land refers to land held in trust by the United States for an Indian
tribe or an individual tribal member. This means that the United States
hold legal title to that land which the tribe or individual tribal member
holds beneficial titlewhich means that they have the right to use
the property and derive benefits from it. Because trust land is owned
by the United States, state and local laws regarding matters such as taxation,
zoning, land use and the like have no application to these lands.
Is all Indian Land Trust Land?
No. Many tribes and individual Indians have purchased land to which they
hold fee simple title. In addition, some Indian lands were made subject
to restrictions against alienation-a device intended to protect against
the loss of the particular property.
Do Indian Tribes pay taxes?
As governmental entities, Indian tribes are not subject to taxes imposed
upon individuals. They do, however, pay some taxes as a result of being
Do individual Indians pay taxes?
Individual Indians are exempt from state income taxes if they live on
and derive their income from reservation resources. If they live and work
outside their reservation, they are subject to state income and sales
taxes. Items purchased outside a reservation by an Indian person which
is delivered for use within a reservation, is not subject to a state sales
tax. All individual Indians are subject to federal income tax.
Adapted from: www.hhindianlaw.com/faq.htm,
by Indian law attorneys, Holland & Hart.