Introduction to Tribal Concepts
Federally Recognized Indian Tribes (continued)
Federal recognition is now normally achieved by a statutorily defined federal acknowledgment process through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (or BIA), or by an act of Congress. The BIA process requires tribes to show that they have maintained a substantially continuous tribal existence and have functioned as autonomous entities throughout history to the present. Most tribes, however, were recognized by the U.S. government long before the present BIA process was implemented, usually by treaty, federal statute, or Presidential Executive Order.
Federal recognition is a prerequisite for a tribe's participation in the special Indian programs and services administered by the departments and agencies of the U.S. government, and for the immunity of a tribe's trust lands from state taxation.
Legally, there is a distinction between Indian tribes who are federally recognized and those who are not. Federal recognition signifies that the U.S. government acknowledges the political sovereignty and Indian identity of a tribe, and from that recognition flows the obligation to conduct dealings with that tribe's leadership on a government-to-government basis. There will be more about the government-to-government relationship later in this module.
Today, there are over 560 tribes recognized by the U.S. government. This includes over 220 Alaska Native Villages. We use these approximate numbers because there are tribes currently seeking recognition through the BIA process or by federal statute, and thus these numbers may increase over time.
Regardless of how it was recognized, each tribe has its own unique history and culture.