American Indian law: an overview
In U.S. law, the term “Indians” refers generally to the indigenous peoples of the continent at the time of European colonization. “Alaska Natives” and “Native Hawaiians” refer to peoples indigenous to the areas occupied by those named states. The terms “tribe” or “band” designate a group of Indians of the same or similar heritage united in a community under one leadership or government, and inhabiting a particular territory. The term “tribe” is subject to some controversy, with Indian peoples increasingly preferring “nation” or “people.” The terms used may vary from statute to statute and case to case as well.
An Indian People may exist in fact and be recognized by others or by a state, without being recognized by the federal government. To determine whether a group will be recognized, courts and legislatures examine such factors as the extent of Indian governmental control over individual lives and activities, the extent to which the group exercises political control over specific territory, and the continuity of the group’s history.
Federal law recognizes a special kind of sovereign authority in Indian tribes to govern themselves, subject to an over-riding federal authority. Indian tribes are considered by federal law to be “domestic, dependent nations.” This subordination to federal authority is said to be a “protection” from the power of states. There are numerous federal statutes dealing with Indian rights and governance, such as the Indian Reorganization Act (http://www.sioux.org/june_18_1934_indian_reorgan_act.html), and the Indian Civil Rights Act (http://www.tribal-institute.org/lists/icra1968.htm) (also known as the Indian Bill of Rights). 28 U.S.C. § 1360 deals with state civiljurisdiction in actions in which Native Americans are parties.