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Know the Laws:

UPDATED March 12, 2010

General Tribal Law Information

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This page includes general information about tribal law, custody protection orders, and links to other online resources for domestic violence on tribal land.

The Tribal Justice System

back to topWhat is a tribal justice system?

According to US Code Title 25, Chapter 38A, Sec. 3653, the term ''tribal court'', ''tribal court system'', or ''tribal justice system'' means the entire judicial branch, and employees thereof, of an Indian tribe, including, but not limited to, traditional methods for dispute resolution, trial courts, appellate courts, including inter-tribal appellate courts, alternative dispute resolution systems, and circuit rider systems, established by inherent tribunal authority whether or not they constitute a court of record.*

In the Indian Tribal Justice Technical and Legal Assistance Act of 2000, the Congress declared that:

  1. There is a government-to-government relationship between the United States and Indian tribes; and
  2. Indian tribes are sovereign entities and are responsible for exercising governmental authority over Indian lands.**

* 25 USC § 3653
 ** 25 USCS § 3651

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back to topIs it possible to generalize about tribal laws?

It is important to note that it is impossible to completely generalize about tribes. The information here does not apply to all tribes, nor is it written about any one tribe specifically. The tribal court on your reservation, if there is one, or a community center or women's center in your area may have information specifically about your tribe.

The National Tribal Justice Resource Center in its article about Tribal Court History, writes:  Approximately 275 Indian nations and Alaska Native villages have established formal tribal court systems. There is widespread variety in the types of forums and the law applied in each is distinctly unique to each tribe. Some tribal courts resemble Western-style judiciaries where written laws and rules of court procedure are applied. An increasing number of tribes are returning to their traditional means of resolving disputes through the use of peacemaking, elders’ councils and sentencing circles.

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Overview of Protection Orders and Custody

back to topWhat is a tribal protection order?

A tribal protection order is a tribal court order issued to an abuser to protect a victim of domestic violence. Protection orders usually prohibit the abuser from contacting the victim of abuse, coming near the victim, her children, and her property. Such orders can be temporary or permanent and are usually issued for a specific time period.  Please visit the page Tribal Protection Orders on this site.

Tribal protection orders are issued by tribal courts, but similar court-issued protection orders are available in every state in the US. No matter where a protection order is issued from, it should be valid and enforceable in every state and throughout Indian country. 

It is important to remember that protection orders only work when the victim is willing to take action to have it enforced. Also, the protection order is limited in what it can do in the form of actual protection.

Note: Protection orders may be called different things in each Indian tribe and Alaska Native village and in each state. They might be called "restraining orders," "protective orders," "Orders of Protection," etc. "Protection order" is the generic term we will be using throughout this webpage to refer to this sort of court order.

It is important to note that not all tribal nations have a court system or a police department, and therefore those tribal nations generally do not issue protection orders. If your tribe does not have a tribal court, and you would like to file for a protection order, you can go to the state court nearest you and ask the court clerk how you can file for a protection order. You will find a list of courthouse contact information on this website on the "Courthouse Locations" page under the Where to Find Help tab at the top of this page.

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back to topHow will child custody issues be handled?

It depends. Custody is very complicated and we recommend that you contact a lawyer to find out how custody will be handled in your case.

Generally, if either of the parents/legal guardians or the child is a tribal member, that tribe will have jurisdiction over the case. It is important to find out if the Court that has jurisdiction over the case is of the same tribe as the family members involved. Non-member Indians are treated differently than member Indians for purposes of jurisdiction in civil cases.

Note: Custody matters involving Indian children are sometimes subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which is a Federal Statute governing the placement of Indian Children who are in any out-of-home placement, voluntary or involuntary, by any state, county, city or government. The act applies to all public or private agencies that remove or place children.

For more information on the ICWA and how it works, please visit one of the following websites:

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Other Online Resources for Tribal Law

back to topWhere can I find additional resources on the Internet?

There are many resources available online which provide information on Domestic Violence on Tribal land.  Many are listed on our Native American page under National Organizations.

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back to topWhere can I find local resource centers, shelters, and legal aid providers?

There are many local resource centers, shelters, and legal aid providers available to give you help, support, and advice. Many do not have websites but you may be able to find them on this website; in your local phone book; or through a local community resource center. 

To find state and local Programs for Native Americans, go to the Where to Find Help tab at the top of this page and select your state, then Local and State Programs, then Programs for Native Americans.

Click here for national programs for Native Americans.  (You may access this list anytime from the National Organizations link under the Where to Find Help tab at the top of this page.) 

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back to topWhere can I find contact info for tribal courts in my area?

The Tribal Court Directory is available online.

The National Tribal Justice Resource Center created this directory of links to the various tribal courts and justices systems from across the nation. You can view the full Tribal Court Directory, or search for tribal courts by state or by tribal court name.

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back to topWhere can I find tribal codes and constitutions online?

The websites Tribal Court Clearinghouse and VictimLaw.org have sections with many tribal codes and constitutions.

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WomensLaw.org would like to thank Sarah Deer at the Tribal Law & Policy Institute for her assistance in collecting this information.

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