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Indian & Tribal Law

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


Tribal Court Caselaw

Finding tribal court decisions can be challenging. There is no comprehensive source. This video demonstrates six databases: Casemaker, Indian Law Reporter on HeinOnline, Lexis, Northwest Intertribal Court System, VersusLaw, and Westlaw (complemented by West's American Tribal Law Reporter in the Caselaw Access Project). (14:27)

Tribal Courts

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)

Rose Carmen Goldberg, No Tribal Court Is an Island? Citation Practices of the Tribal Judiciary, 3 Am. Indian L.J. 247 (2014) (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)

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

William P. Zuger, A Baedeker to the Tribal Court, 83 N. Dak. L. Rev. 55 (2007) (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

Casemaker includes cases from 63 courts (sometimes more than one court for one tribe).

  • UW Law students and faculty can register free. Access is courtesy of the Washington State Bar Association.
  • All Washington lawyers (and their staff) have access to Casemaker as a benefit of WSBA membership.

Lexis Advance 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.

VersusLaw includes cases from over 22 tribal courts (21 tribes).

  • UW law students and faculty can register free. Scroll to the bottom of the screen, under the banner Special Groups. Click the link for "More Information" about the student program.

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. For example searches in October 2017 yielded 415 cases from the Fort Peck Tribes but only 9 from the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation (and the most recent was from 2006).

Search interfaces vary. For example, as of December 2020, Casemaker did not allow sorting by date, and VersusLaw did not allow display of more than 200 cases from a single search.

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

These search results from Dec. 29, 2020, illustrate how skimpy coverage is, considering that more than 250 tribes operate their own court systems:

Tribal Court Cases in Databases
  2019 2020
Casemaker 15 14
Lexis 7 4
Tribal Court Indian Law Bulletin
(NILL) (most from Westlaw)
16 9
VersusLaw 31 1
Westlaw 64 22

There is lots of overlap: many cases are available in more than one database.

Navajo Nation cases are often represented, including VersusLaw's only case from 2020 and 10 out of Lexis's 11 cases from 2019 and 2020.

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? The following chart lists tribes and the sources that publish at least some of each tribe's cases.

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: