State-Tribal Collaboration

hand shakeMany tribes and states are discovering ways to set aside jurisdictional debate in favor of cooperative government-to-government relationships that respect the autonomy of both governments.  It is now common for tribes and states to work together to build new structures for communication and cooperation. This collaboration does not mean that either a state or a tribe is giving away jurisdiction or sovereignty.

An antagonistic history of state-tribal jurisdictional battles, bureaucratic misunderstandings and lack of meaningful dialogue around the potential benefits of cross-governmental cooperation are factors that consistently undermine attempts at establishing strong state-tribal relations. Inaccurate perceptions of American Indian tribes that persist in some non-Indian communities aggravate the situation.  Many state officials may not even fully understand that tribes are functioning governments. Tribes may be hesitant to form working relationships with state governments because of their constitutional and direct relationship with the federal government.  They feel cooperation with states might in some way diminish their sovereign powers.

The status of state-tribal relationships varies according to those involved. While one state may have built strong, trusting relationships with tribal nations, in a neighboring state, the parties may rarely speak. Even within the same state there may be cooperation on one issue but none on another. It is also common to find a mutually beneficial solution for a particular policy issue in one state, while other states and tribes continue to struggle with essentially the same question.

Nonetheless, most of the current interactions are  not controversial. Tribes, states and local governments cooperate daily and share responsibilities for government services on a broad range of issues. Tribes have jurisdiction over some matters, states have jurisdiction over others, and in many areas they have joint jurisdiction.

For more information, the 2009 publication, Government to Government: Models of Cooperation Between States and Tribes, examines existing models of state-tribal cooperation on a broad range of issues. The book also highlights some general strategies that tribes and states have used to form government-to-government relationships based on communication and respect. For current state legislation, visit the State-Tribal Database to search state measures on government-to-government relationships.