The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Tribal Sovereignty

The fight to preserve tribal sovereignty and treaty rights has long been at the forefront of the Native American civil rights movement. The federal government has special trust obligations to protect tribal lands and resources, protect tribal rights to self-government, and provide services necessary for tribal survival and advancement.

Tribal Recognition

There are currently 562 federally recognized tribes in the U.S.  Federal recognition establishes a government-to-government relationship between the federal government and the tribe.  Federally recognized tribes are eligible for federal assistance programs that fund initiatives like schools and health clinics and their lands, which are sometimes held in trusts by the U.S. government, are exempt from state and local jurisdiction.

Tribal Sovereignty

Federally recognized tribes are considered domestic dependent nations. Tribal sovereignty refers to tribes' right to govern themselves, define their own membership, manage tribal property, and regulate tribal business and domestic relations; it further recognizes the existence of a government-to-government relationship between such tribes and the federal government.

Supreme Court

The rights of Native Americans under tribal sovereignty were first established in three opinions of Chief Justice John Marshall, commonly referred to as the Marshall Trilogy: Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1832), and Worcester v. Georgia (1832).

Since then, the Supreme Court has heard a number of cases that have affected tribal sovereignty.


In Bryan v. Itasca County (1976), the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that state tax and regulatory laws do not apply to Native Americans living on reservations (tribal land). The decision allowed Indian tribes to open casinos and other gaming enterprises on reservations.

On many reservations, gaming has lifted tribal communities out of poverty by providing money for housing, schools, health care, and education, as well as stable jobs for community members. Currently, there are around 400 Indian gaming establishments in the United States.

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