Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Indian Law

Who is considered to be an Indian?
Indian tribes have the authority and power to define their own requirements for membership. Tribal membership is most frequently defined by blood quantum, however, some tribes also have requirements involving reservation residency, descendency from original roles and enrollment deadlines. There is also a federal definition of "Indian" for purposes of federal benefits. That definition typically requires membership in a federally recognized tribe or being one-quarter Indian blood.

Who governs an Indian Tribe?
Indian tribes possess inherent powers of self-government that predate the establishment of the United States. Some Tribes and Pueblos maintain traditional forms of government. Others have adopted constitutions and established tribal councils elected by democratic vote pursuant to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the follow up Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936.

What is the role of the Federal government with regard to Indian Tribes?
The United States has what federal courts have described as plenary power to regulate Indian affairs. The United States, through its various departments within the Executive branch, stands in the role of trustee for Indian tribes in many matters. Indian tribes are subject to federal laws of general application unless a specific law provides otherwise.

What is the role of state government with regard to Indian Tribes?
Generally, state governments have no role regarding Indian tribes and have no authority over tribes or Indians with Indian Country unless specifically authorized by Congress.

What Is a federally recognized Indian Tribe?
A federally recognized Indian Tribe is a group of Indians recognized by the United States as an Indian Tribe. Recognition is established as a result of historical and continued existence of a tribal government; by Executive Order or legislation; and through the federal recognition process recently established by Congress.
The recognition establishes a tribe as an entity with the capacity to engage in government-to-government relations with the United States or individual states. These are not powers granted to the tribe by the United States but are powers inherent to Indian tribes as units of government that long preceded the existence of the United States.

What is Indian Country?
Indian country is defined by federal law as including:
1. All land within the limits of any Indian reservation, under the jurisdiction of the United States.
2. All dependent Indian Communities within the borders of the United States.
3. All Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished.

What is Trust Land?
Trust land refers to land held in trust by the United States for an Indian tribe or an individual tribal member. This means that the United States hold legal title to that land which the tribe or individual tribal member holds beneficial title—which means that they have the right to use the property and derive benefits from it. Because trust land is owned by the United States, state and local laws regarding matters such as taxation, zoning, land use and the like have no application to these lands.

Is all Indian Land Trust Land?
No. Many tribes and individual Indians have purchased land to which they hold fee simple title. In addition, some Indian lands were made subject to restrictions against alienation-a device intended to protect against the loss of the particular property.

Do Indian Tribes pay taxes?
As governmental entities, Indian tribes are not subject to taxes imposed upon individuals. They do, however, pay some taxes as a result of being an employer.

Do individual Indians pay taxes?
Individual Indians are exempt from state income taxes if they live on and derive their income from reservation resources. If they live and work outside their reservation, they are subject to state income and sales taxes. Items purchased outside a reservation by an Indian person which is delivered for use within a reservation, is not subject to a state sales tax. All individual Indians are subject to federal income tax.

Adapted from:, by Indian law attorneys, Holland & Hart.

Close Window