Working Effectively with Tribal Governments

Introduction to Tribal Concepts

Treaty signing by William T. Sherman and the Lakota nation, Yanktonai Sioux, Santee Sioux, and Arapaho at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, 1868. Photo by Alexander Gardner, 1868.


A treaty is a legal agreement between sovereign nations. The treaties the U.S. signed with Indian tribes acknowledged and recognized the tribes' inherent sovereignty as distinct, independent nations. These treaties established the pattern of legal and political interaction between the U.S. government and Indian tribes, and serve to document the beginnings of the government-to-government relationship that we discuss later in this module.

Through treaties, many Indian tribes ceded, or relinquished, certain lands and rights to the U.S. government in exchange for various federal commitments that included provisions for the future of their people. In these treaties, tribes often reserved for themselves certain portions of land, called reservations. In some treaties, tribes also reserved the right to hunt, fish, gather resources, and access sacred sites on their former lands.

Time does not diminish the effect of treaties. Although the practice of Indian treaty-making was halted by Congress in 1871, treaties signed before that time remain the law of the land unless modified or abrogated by the passage of subsequent federal law. Federal agencies need to be mindful of treaty obligations when carrying out programs with the potential to impact a treaty provision.

Not all tribes have treaties, and treaties are not the sole source of the federal government's responsibilities to tribes. The federal government's responsibilities to tribes also stem from court decisions, statutes, executive orders, and the historical relationships between the United States and Indian tribes.

Text of the Delaware Treaty - 1778 (PDF)

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