State-Tribal Institute Most Frequently Asked Questions


state-tribal institute logoWhat is the State-Tribal Institute at NCSL?

The State-Tribal Institute was established in 2006 and is part of the Member Outreach Division within NCSL. The Institute strives to improve upon and facilitate more effective state-tribal cooperation and the government-to-government and leader-to-leader relationships. The Institute also conducts trainings and educational programs and provides staff support to the 76 member National Caucus of Native American State Legislators.

How many American Indian tribes exist?

There are 566 federally-recognized Indian tribes, bands, nations, pueblos, rancherias, communities and Native villages in the United States. The majority of these are located in Alaska while the remainder are located in 33 other states. More than 200 tribal languages are still spoken. These languages and cultural traditions are extremely important as more than 4 million Americans self-identify as either American Indian or Alaska Native.

What is tribal sovereignty?

Sovereignty refers to the right of American Indians and Alaska Natives to govern themselves. This right is granted in the U.S. Constitution—although it was an inherent right that existed before the Constitution was framed—as European countries regularly dealt with Indian tribes as sovereign nations. This sovereignty includes the right to establish their own form of government, enact legislation and establish law enforcement and court systems, among other things.

What is a federally recognized Indian Tribe?

Federal recognition of Indian tribes means official acknowledgement by the United States of the political status of that tribe as a government. These tribes share a legal relationship (government-to-government) with the Federal government and are entitled to receive special services and benefits designed to fulfill the federal trust responsibility to tribes. No decisions about tribal land or residents can be made without the tribe's consent. The U.S. Department of the Interior maintains the list of federally-recognized tribes.

What is the "Federal Trust Responsibility?"

In treaties, Indians relinquished certain rights in exchange for promises from the federal government. "Trust responsibility" is the government's obligation to honor the trust inherent to these promises. The United States holds most Indian land, money and resources in "trust" where it is expected to manage them in the way most beneficial to tribes and their members.

What is a state-recognized Indian Tribe?

State recognized tribes are tribes recognized by individual states, usually through the state legislature or by a state commission or similar organization. Some state-recognized tribes are also federally recognized. State-recognized tribes are eligible for substantially fewer benefits than federally recognized ones. The main reason tribes petition for state recognition is to have their existence acknowledged and to continue a government-to-government relationship with the state.

What is the role of the state government regarding American Indian tribes?

State governments have no authority over Indian tribes, unless officially authorized by the U.S. Congress. Tribal governments are not subservient to state governments and retain the right to create laws that are stricter or more lenient than state laws. In general, states may regulate only on matters that are exclusive to non-Indians and that do not affect tribal interests. For decades, however, tribal and state governments have found ways to cooperate on a broad range of regulatory matters--often in the form of intergovernmental agreements.

How do American Indians and Alaska Natives govern themselves?

Currently, many tribes are organized under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and have adopted Constitutions but, prior to that, tribes maintained their own highly developed systems of self-government. Tribes form their governments either by election of members to a governing council or, in some cases, by elders choosing the tribe's leaders through the use of traditional practices.

Do all Indian tribes have casinos?

No. The huge financial success of a few Indian casinos has created the perception that nearly all Indian tribes across the country are involved in gaming ventures. The most successful casinos are located near metropolitan areas, yet the majority of Indian tribes reside in very rural, remote locations. In reality, gaming has done little to change the depressed economic conditions found in most Indian communities

Do American Indians pay taxes?

Yes, individual American Indians and Alaska Natives (as well as their businesses) pay the same taxes as other citizens, with the following exceptions:

  • Federal income taxes are not levied on income from trust lands held for them by the United States.

  • State income taxes are not paid on income earned on tribal land.

  • State sales taxes are not paid by Indians on transactions made on an Indian reservation.

  • Local property taxes are not paid on reservation or trust land.

Neither state governments nor tribal governments pay federal taxes because each are considered sovereign governments.