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Working Effectively with Tribal Governments

Introduction to Tribal Concepts

Tribal and federal officials seated around a large conference table

The Government-to-Government Relationship

The government-to-government relationship between the U.S. government and federally recognized Indian tribes is rooted in the historic signing of treaties. As noted in the prior discussion of treaties, in these treaties the U.S. recognized and acknowledged the inherent sovereignty of tribal nations. The U.S. Constitution established the exclusive power of the Congress to regulate commerce with Indian tribes in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3, known as the "Indian commerce clause."

The federal government's exclusive relationship with tribes was further solidified by the passage of multiple laws, called Trade and Intercourse Acts, which prohibited states from encroaching upon or purchasing land from tribes without congressional approval. Later, the 1832 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Worcester v. Georgia also served to establish in the canons of Indian law the precept that the states are specifically excluded from this relationship between two sovereign nations.

Federal recognition signifies that the U.S. government acknowledges the political sovereignty of a tribe, and from that recognition flows the obligation to conduct dealings with the tribe's leadership on a government-to-government basis. In practice, the government-to-government relationship is frequently embodied by consultation and coordination between a designated tribal representative and a designated federal representative on issues that may impact the Indian tribe.

Since the 1970s, U.S. Presidents have consistently reaffirmed the primacy of the government-to-government relationship between the federal government and federally recognized Indian tribes.

Most recently, this relationship has been articulated in President George W. Bush's Presidential Memorandum, "Government-to-Government Relationship with Tribal Governments," which states: "my administration is committed to continuing to work with federally recognized tribal governments on a government-to-government basis and strongly supports and respects tribal sovereignty and self-determination for tribal governments in the United States."

This Presidential Memorandum reaffirmed the federal responsibilities set forth in Executive Order 13175 (2000), "Consultation and Coordination with Tribal Governments." Executive Order 13175 specifically states that each federal agency must ensure that it operates within a government-to-government relationship with federally recognized tribes. It also states that agencies should consult with tribal governments before taking action that affects tribal lands, resources, and tribal members.

Select this link to access recent Presidential memos that pertain to tribal governments.

Executive Order 13175



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