Working Effectively with Tribal Governments

Introduction to Tribal Concepts

Grand entry of pow wow dancers from different tribes at the National Pow Wow with color guard carrying flags in the background

Federally Recognized Indian Tribes

Another definition of a Native American is a person with tribal membership. What does tribal membership mean? Since tribes can define their own membership criteria, different tribes have different requirements for tribal enrollment. There are individuals of Native American descent who nevertheless cannot meet the enrollment criteria of their tribe, or tribes, of origin. As a result, they would not be considered to hold tribal membership.

In a few cases, federal agencies may have their own definitions of who is eligible for certain programs, which may not include membership in a federally recognized tribe.

A general definition of a tribe is a body of people bound together by blood ties who are socially, politically, and religiously organized. The people may live together in a defined territory and speak a common language. The term "Indian tribes," which appears in Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, has been used in numerous pieces of legislation and as a result "Indian tribe" has become a frequently used legal term of art. You may also hear tribes referred to as "Nations," which is another way of expressing their sovereign status. For purposes of this training module, the term "Indian tribes" refers to federally recognized tribes.

Federally recognized Indian tribes have a legal relationship with the U.S. government and its agencies unlike that of any other group of Americans. This relationship is based in large part on the recognition of tribes as sovereign nations in the U.S Constitution. This relationship is furthered in historic treaties that the federal government signed with Indian tribes, which acknowledged and recognized the tribes' inherent sovereignty as nations. Therefore, the relationship between the federal government and federally recognized Indian tribes is a political one, based on this historic and evolving relationship between sovereign governments, and not on the ethnicity of Native Americans.

The fact that federally recognized Indian tribes possess this unique political status does not affect the ability of their individual tribal members to participate in programs that serve minority populations.

Indian Tribe - A Statutory Definition from the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (25 U.S.C. 450b(e))

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