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Native Peoples, or Indian, Law protects the sovereign immunity rights of federally recognized Native American tribes. The key to understanding this law is not only grasping the basics and what they mean to this country's Native Americans, but realizing its impact on our population as a whole.

The Law: A Basic Overview

The term “Native Americans” refers to Eskimos, Aleuts, and native North Americans (in other words, inhabitants of North America prior to European discovery). A Native American tribe is a body of Native Americans of the same race banded together under one leadership and inhabiting a specific territory. In order to be recognized as a tribe and thus, granted their sovereign immunity rights, however, these communities are often subject to examination by the courts and legislatures, which aim to determine such factors as the extent of the tribal government's control over its people's lives.

Federally recognized Native American tribes possess, by law, the sovereign authority to self-government and are subordinate and dependent nations, protected by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

Its National Impact

Over the last ten years or so, Native American tribes have become key participants in our nation's economy, generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually in tax revenue for state and local governments. Tribes have aggressively created new businesses in the areas of real estate development, wholesale and retail trade, banking and finance, media, telecommunications, tourism, and gaming. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the level of interaction between tribes and non-Native American citizens seeking business, employment, and recreational opportunities on Indian reservations.

This increased interaction has naturally spurred a rise in legal problems between tribe members and the non-members who visit the reservations. Because of the Native Peoples Law – the fact that these tribes are considered independent political communities that, therefore, have the right to set their own rules and live by them – such legal matters can be highly complex.

For example, if you are a non-Native American wishing to sue a tribe for damages, you are probably out of luck. Like other sovereign governmental entities protected by immunity, tribes cannot be sued. The only way in which a tribe might be sued is if Congress has “unequivocally” sanctioned the suit or if the tribe has clearly waived its immunity.

Tribes are also immune from being subpoenaed and cannot be required to produce documents. And furthermore, tribal immunity usually extends to include tribal agencies such as casinos, resorts, and other business establishments. For this reason, many United States courts continue to dismiss the rising number of personal injury lawsuits that originate on tribal reservations. Though slip-and-falls are quite common, it simply boils down to a lack of jurisdiction.

The Native Peoples Law was designed to protect the rights of this nation's indigenous peoples. However, as tribal economic development continues to thrive and legal disputes between Native and non-Native Americans continue to rise, we will continue to see the extent to which this law impacts litigation and challenges today's legal minds.

By Lindsay Rech           

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