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Indian & Tribal Law

Resources for researching federal Indian law and Native American tribal law.

Video

Tribal Court Caselaw

Finding tribal court decisions can be challenging. There is no comprehensive source. This video demonstrates several databases: Fastcase, Indian Law Reporter on HeinOnline, Lexis, Northwest Intertribal Court System, and Westlaw (complemented by West's American Tribal Law Reporter in the Caselaw Access Project). (14:50)

Tribal Courts

Even for experts working in tribal law, there is a lot we do not know and—because we have yet to build a reliable and consistent infrastructure—cannot find out easily. For example, while we can confidently say that there are at least 188 tribal courts, there may be as many as 400; even experts are unsure about the precise number.

Elizabeth A. Reese, The Other American Law, 73 Stan. L. Rev. 555, 622-23 (2021), [journal site] (footnotes omitted)

More than More than 250 Indian tribes have adopted tribal courts, and the rest have adopted one or more mechanisms of dispute resolution. systems include more than one type of court. mirror state and federal courts, And many tribal court Some courts while more traditional courts are more informal and rely upon traditional and customary procedure and practice. Some of these traditional courts operate under a system that rejects much of the adversarial system of adjudicating disputes.

Matthew L. M. Fletcher, Toward a Theory of Intertribal and Intratribal Common Law, 43 Hous. L. Rev. 701, 718 (2006) [HeinOnline], [journal site] (footnotes omitted)

Tribal Courts & Washington State Courts

Washington Civil Rule 82.5 specifies some relationships between tribal and Washington courts:

(a) When the tribal court has exclusive jurisdiction, then a case brought in state court will be dismissed.

(b) When there is concurrent jurisdiction, the superior court may transfer the case to tribal court if the interests of justice require.

(c) Superior courts shall recognize and enforce tribal court orders.

(d) Superior courts and tribal courts may communicate about co-occurring proceedings.

CFR Courts / Court of Indian Offenses

"CFR Courts" or the Court of Indian Offenses serve as the trial courts for some Oklahoma tribes that do not have their own justice systems. Appeals may be taken from the trial court to the Court of Indian Appeals.

Articles About Tribal Courts

Matthew L. M. Fletcher, Toward a Theory of Intertribal and Intratribal Common Law, 43 Hous. L. Rev. 701 (2006), [HeinOnline], [journal site]

Rose Carmen Goldberg, No Tribal Court Is an Island? Citation Practices of the Tribal Judiciary, 3 Am. Indian L.J. 247 (2014), [journal site] [HeinOnline] (analyzing 3-year sample of tribal court cases to see what precedents were cited).

Nell Jessup Newton, Tribal Court Praxis: One Year in the Life of Twenty Indian Tribal Courts, 22 Am. Indian L. Rev. 285 (1998), [author's law school site], [HeinOnline]

April L. Wilkinson, Student Paper, A Framework for Understanding Tribal Courts and the Application of Fundamental Law: Through the Voices of Scholars in the Field of Tribal Justice, 15 Tribal L.J. 67 (2015), [journal site]

William P. Zuger, A Baedeker to the Tribal Court, 83 N.D. L. Rev. 55 (2007), [journal site], [HeinOnline] (Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Court)

Publication of Tribal Court Decisions

There is no comprehensive source for all tribal court decisions, either in print or online.

Some tribes post some or all of their decisions on their websites. See list at the Tribal Court Clearinghouse.

Some tribes publish their cases separately.

Selected tribal court decisions are published in the Indian Law Reporter.

Some tribes' cases are available in commercial databases, Casemaker, Lexis, Versuslaw, or Westlaw.

To find sources for a given tribe, use the National Indian Law Library's Tribal Law Gateway or use our chart below, under Compare Coverage.

Commercial Online Sources

Fastcase includes (selected) decisions for about 70 courts from over 60 tribes.

  • UW users may access it from the law library's homepage.
  • Washington State Bar Association members (and the members of most bar associations) may set up their own accounts.

Lexis includes (selected) decisions for over 45 courts (sometimes two courts for one tribe).

  • UW Law students and faculty have individual passwords to Lexis Advance.
  • People who visit the library and anyone at the UW may use Nexis Uni, the Lexis product that the University Libraries subscribes to. Nexis Uni includes tribal materials.

Westlaw includes tribal court decisions from 22 tribes, plus its Oklahoma Tribal Court Reports collection, which includes "opinions issued by one of the CFR or tribal courts in Oklahoma, including the tribal courts, Courts of Indian Appeals, and Courts of Indian Offenses."

  • Westlaw's tribal law materials are not included in UW Law's academic subscription, but users can still search them and learn that an opinion exists, often with a citation to West's American Tribal Law Reporter. Even without the print source, using the case name and date, the researcher can often find the case on a tribe's website.
  • Most but not all of the opinions on Westlaw are published in West's American Tribal Law Reporter. Cases from volumes 1-13 (1997–2017) are available in the Caselaw Access Project. You can view a text-only version or a PDF with the publisher's proprietary headnotes redacted.You can view a text-only version or a PDF with the publisher's proprietary headnotes redacted.
  • Coverage of tribes varies.

Search interfaces vary.

Coverage is spotty for each source. A source that has cases for a given tribe from, say, 1990 might not have them from 2015.

There is lots of overlap: many cases are available in more than one database. For details, see next box.

Compare Coverage

Some tribes' opinions are in multiple sources, some in only one (and some not available at all). How can you compare the coverage of the different sources? What years are covered? How much overlap is there?

If you are interested in materials for one tribe in particular, the best access is through the National Indian Law Library's Tribal Law Gateway: