A Legislatures Guide to State-Tribal Relations

Oklahoma capitolUpdated February 2013

The National Conference of State Legislatures has a long history of work on state-tribal relations and has brought attention to the government-to-government relationship that exists between the tribes and states. State-tribal relations have primarily focused on executive branches in the states, but state legislatures can be a powerful forum in which to address state-tribal issues. If legislators are uninformed or misinformed about the unique circumstances and needs of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities, those citizens will not be adequately served. If tribal governments do not understand state governance concerns and positions, or do not believe that working with states can be beneficial, then opportunities for cooperation will not be realized.

State legislatures can consider the following to initiate positive state-tribal relations:

  • Host an annual Native American cultural recognition day at the Capitol. Tribal leaders can address the legislature and meet with committees or individual state legislators to discuss tribal issues within the state. This can help develop leader-to-leader relationships designed to facilitate cooperative policymaking. Activities could also include cultural events to honor tribes within the state and educate the community about the tribe’s history and traditions. Arizona, Maine, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Dakota, for example, designate specific days during their legislative sessions for interaction with tribal governments.

  • Invite tribal leaders to give a “State of the Tribes” address at the commencement of each legislative session. The address can provide tribes with the opportunity to inform legislators about issues in Native communities and their legislative priorities.

  • Create executive branch commissions designed to address state-tribal issues in the state. These commissions can facilitate the creation of statewide state-tribal partnerships that provide a framework for communication and conflict resolution and promote policy development on a government-to-government basis. States may wish to consider creating these offices in a manner that incorporates representation from both the executive and legislative branches of state government and representation from tribal governments to streamline communication and coordinate efforts.

  • Create a committee on state-tribal relations within the legislature to serve as a forum for addressing tribal issues and developing effective legislation. The legislature could invite tribal leaders to participate in the committee or sit on the committee as permanent members.

  • Establish a guidebook for fellow-legislators or incoming legislators. Educating both new and seasoned legislators about the tribes within the state, pertinent state-tribal issues and protocol for tribal consultation and cooperation in policymaking can be beneficial to the legislative body as a whole. State legislatures can educate freshman legislators about tribal issues through information sessions during their new member orientation. In addition, state legislatures can provide more in-depth educational sessions on tribal issues for legislators poised to become leadership within the next few years.

For more information on the State-Tribal Institute at the National Conference of State Legislatures, contact Irene Kawanabe at 303-856-1414.