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What is the relationship between the United States and the Tribes?

The relationship between the tribes and the United States is one of a sovereign government to another sovereign government. This principle has shaped the entire history of dealings between the federal government, the states, and the tribes.The United States government entered into treaties with tribal governments that exchanged tribal lands for federal protection and services. These treaties still form the basis of much of the Tribal-Federal relationship.

This relationship is established in the Constitution of the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court, through many cases, has established the U.S. Constitution Commerce Clause, Article I, Section 8, as the basis of the Tribal-Federal relationship. The Commerce Clause states: The Congress shall have the power To . . . regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the American Indian Tribes[.]

It is important to remember that tribes pre-date the U.S. Constitution and, as such, tribes are not bound by its provisions. In 1968, however, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act, which established most, but not all, of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights within Indian Country.

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Last Updated
4th of June, 2012

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