Michalyn Steele


The doctrine of inherent tribal sovereignty—that tribes retain aboriginal sovereign governing power over people and territory—is under perpetual assault. Despite two centuries of precedential foundation, the doctrine must be defended afresh with each attack. Opponents of the doctrine of tribal sovereignty express skepticism of the doctrine, suggesting that tribal sovereignty is a nullity because it is not unfettered. Some pay lip service to the doctrine while undermining tribes in their exercise of inherent sovereignty. Underlying many of these legal fights is confusion about both the nature of tribal sovereignty and the justifications for its continuing existence. Under current federal law, tribes are domestic, rather than international sovereigns. Tribes retain significant powers but are subject to the ultimate sovereignty of the United States. The sui generis status of Indian tribes in the American legal landscape generates important and difficult questions: which governing powers do tribes retain and where does the power to answer that question reside in the federal system? How are disputes about the scope of tribal authority to be resolved?

As the debate about what powers tribes may exercise (and over whom) continues into its third century, it is critical to reexamine the origins of the doctrine of inherent tribal sovereignty as a settled principle of federal law and to articulate the principles that ought to guide the development of that principle in the future. Setting the metes and bounds of the doctrine of tribal sovereignty in federal law and policy belongs to the political branches. This Article suggests legal principles that ought to guide the federal political branches in the exercise of the Indian Affairs power and the trust responsibility to address the scope of tribal inherent authority. First, this Article examines the legal roots and branches of the doctrine of inherent tribal sovereignty, demonstrating that the doctrine remains a vital principle of federal law. Second, this Article analyzes the nature of contemporary assaults on the doctrine of inherent tribal authority by all three branches of the federal government, states, and private actors. Third, this Article suggests principles that ought to guide Congress in exercising its Indian affairs power to clarify and affirm the bounds of tribal sovereignty in federal law and in carrying out the federal trust responsibility to tribes.