Legal Information: Tribal

Tribal Law

View by section

Tribal Law

This page includes general information about tribal law, information on tribal protection orders, and links to other online resources for domestic violence on tribal land.  For help please see the Native American resources page on this website.

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

General Tribal Law Information

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

What 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.1

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.2

1 25 USC § 3653
2 25 USCS § 3651

Back to top

Is 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.

Back to top

Overview of Protection Orders and Custody

What 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 Places that Help tab at the top of this page.

Back to top

How 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:

Back to top

Other Online Resources for Tribal Law

Where 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.

Back to top

Where 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 Places that 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 Places that Help tab at the top of this page.) 

Back to top

Where 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.

Back to top

Where can I find tribal codes and constitutions online?

Tribal Protection Orders

This page includes information about getting and enforcing orders of protection in tribal courts.

Basic information

Is there a tribal legal definition of domestic violence?

There is no one tribal legal definition of domestic violence.  Each Indian tribe and Alaska Native village can define domestic violence differently.  There are a total of 565 Federally Recognized Nations1 (330 Nations and 226 Alaska Native Villages).  There are 23 Nations that have State recognition only.  Numerous others lack both Federal and State recognition, however these Nations continue to affirm their Sovereign Status.2

Generally, domestic violence is defined as a range of verbal and physical behaviors between family or household members that cause harm or fear of harm to an individual. Domestic violence can include physical abuse, sexual abuse, threats of abuse, psychological abuse, abuse to property, stalking, and other forms of harassment.

An example of a legal definition of domestic violence is: Physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or the infliction of fear of imminent harm, bodily injury or assault, between family or household members; sexual assault of one family or household member by another, or stalking of one family member or household member by another family or household member.  This definition is not related to any particular Indian tribe, but it may be similar to what you can expect from the laws in your own tribe.

To find out what the legal definition of domestic violence is for your tribe, ask the clerk of the court in your community, or ask someone at a battered women's shelter or domestic violence resource center. You will find a list of many Tribal Codes online at the Tribal Law and Policy Institute's website.

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 if you are eligible to file for a protection order. 

1 Bureau of Indian Affairs, available at www.bia.gov/FAQs/index.htm
2 "Family Violence and American Indians/Alaska Natives: A report to the Indian Health Service Office of Women's Health," Laura A. Williams, MD, MPH, et. al. (2002)

Back to top

How can a protection order help me?

Protection orders cannot guarantee your safety, but in addition to prohibiting your abuser from contacting you or coming near you or your children and property, they can protect you in several different ways:

  • Police are likely to take your calls more seriously if you have a protection order.
  • Your abuser can be arrested and put in jail if he violates a protection order.
  • If you have left your home, a protection order can make it easier for you to get the police to go with you to get your personal belongings.
  • A protection order can help protect you at your job if you're being stalked or harassed.
Back to top

How long is a protection order in effect?

It depends. Protection orders are in effect for different periods of time in each state and tribe.

To find out how long your protection order is in effect, read your copy of the order. It will usually state the expiration date on it.

You can also ask the judge, the court clerk, or someone at a women's resource center how long protection orders are in effect in your community. The judge may be able to extend your protection order if the circumstances warrant it in certain states or tribal areas.

Back to top

Tribal Protection Orders and State Law

Is my tribal protection order valid outside the reservation? If I have a protection order by the state court, is it valid on the reservation?

Yes. Under most circumstances, a protection order is valid in all 50 states, Washington D.C., on all tribal land and in all U.S. Territories, according to the Full Faith and Credit Section of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).1

Note: It is important to know that Full Faith and Credit for protection orders issued from tribal governments has been slow in receiving recognition by jurisdictions outside of tribal lands.

Even though, by law, your tribal court protection order is valid in any jurisdiction throughout the country, what has been happening in some places is that women have been required by some state courts to also petition in their state courts for an order off the reservation.

You may want to consult with an attorney or ask the clerk of court about this-- you should not have to file for more than one protection order at any given time. You may want to make sure that the state courts know about your tribal court-issued order and have registered it.

1 18 USC §2265

Back to top

If I have a tribal protection order, do I need a state-issued protection order, and vice versa?

No. You should not need more than one protection order. However, some exceptions may apply. Please see above for more information. You may wish to register your Order with the court in the county or reservation you are currently living in. Registration is not required, but may be helpful in ensuring that your order will be enforced. However you should consult with a domestic violence advocate to see whether registering is in your best interest, because it is possible that registering your order will alert your abuser of your new address.

Back to top

Who can get a tribal protection order

Am I eligible to get a protection order?

It depends. Each Indian tribe and Alaska Native village has different laws which describe who is eligible to file for a protection order and who is not.

Generally, if you have been the victim of domestic violence by a family or household member (as defined by your tribal laws) or you have a fear of serious injury or harm by a family or household member, then you are eligible to file for a protection order.

In order to find out what the laws are in your community, you can go to the local courthouse and ask the court clerk what the eligibility requirements are for filing for protection orders.

Back to top

How much does it cost to get a protection order?

It depends. The cost of filing for protection orders are different in each state and tribe. Often, there is no fee, or if there is a fee you can file to have it waived if you cannot afford to pay.

To find out how much it costs on your reservation, you can ask the court clerk or someone at a women's resource center.

Back to top

Do I need a lawyer? What does pro se mean?

Pro se means that you can go to court without a lawyer. You can represent yourself throughout the process of seeking a protection order. Many people have been successful in getting protection orders when they have gone pro se, yet in many situations it would be to your advantage to have an attorney to help you through this process. (This is especially true of your abuser has an attorney or child custody issues are involved.)

If you do not want to or cannot hire an attorney, there are many people who can help you go through this process. Some tribal courts allow non-attorneys who have gone through special training to practice in tribal court. Having another person give you support through this process can be a tremendous help and could make it more likely for a judge to grant your order. You will find someone who can help and who knows the system by contacting a local domestic violence organization in your area.

Back to top

Is there anything I can do to protect myself if I am not eligible for a protection order?

Yes. Whether or not you are eligible for a protection order, you should consider making a safety plan to help keep you and your family safe. If you are not safe at home, you might try staying with a friend or at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Shelters are often good places to go to for help, support, and advice. Please see our Staying Safe page for ideas.

Check the "States and Local Programs" page under the Places that Help tab at the top of this page for the state your reservation is located in for a list of resources that may be able to help you and your family.

Back to top

What are the steps for getting a Tribal Protective Order?

What are the steps for getting a protection order?

The steps for getting a restraining order will vary from tribe to tribe. To find out more about the specific process for filing for a protection order on your reservation, please contact a domestic violence resource center or shelter in your community. You can also contact the court clerk at your local tribal court, if there is a court on your reservation.

To find contact info for the tribal court in your area, check out the Tribal Court Directory. This Directory provides links and contact information to many tribal courts and justices systems from across the nation.

Note: The Oklahoma Indian Legal Services has a section on their website with general information about how to file for Protection Orders in Oklahoma Indian Country. That information can be found at http://thorpe.ou.edu/OILS/protect.html.

Also, WomensLaw.org has step-by-step instructions for each state on how to file for protection orders. You might want to check the "Restraining Orders" page for the state in which your tribal nation is located to familiarize yourself with that state's process, in case you have to file for a protection order there as well. The process for filing for a protection order in your tribal court might be similar, so reading through this page might give you a sense of what to expect in tribal court as well.

Back to top

Where can I file for a protection order?

You may file for a protection order in the tribal court, Court of Indian Offenses (CFR Court), or state court, depending on what court system is in place on your reservation.

If you do not live in Indian Country or if your tribe does not have a tribal court or Court of Indian Offenses, 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 for each state.

Back to top

If I have to go to a hearing, what can I do beforehand to prepare my case?

In some states and tribes, you have to have a hearing before the judge decides whether or not to issue a protection order against your abuser. Usually both you and your abuser will have a chance to be present, and you will each be given a chance to tell your side of the story.

If you are having a court hearing, there are some things you can do before your hearing date to be prepared.  Please visit the page on this website, Preparing your Case.

Back to top

Who gets a copy of the order?

You will get a copy of the protection order, as will you abuser and law enforcement officials in your area. However, you may want to follow up with your local police and sheriff's department to make sure they have a copy of your order on file. If they do not, make sure you send a copy to them.

It is very important that you keep this order with you at all times. Make sure that every place listed on the protection order also has a copy. This may include your child's school, your place of employment, or any place else listed on the order. You are responsible for making the copies and giving them to the necessary people and places.

Back to top

After the Hearing

What can I do when I leave the courthouse if I have been issued a protection order against my abuser?

  • Review the order before you leave the courthouse. If something is wrong or missing, ask the clerk to correct the order before you leave.
  • Make several copies of the protective order as soon as possible.
  • Keep a copy of the order with you at all times.
  • Leave copies of the order at your work place, at your home, at the children’s school or daycare, in your car, with a sympathetic neighbor, and so on.
  • Give a copy to the security guard or person at the front desk where you live and/or work.
  • Give a copy of the order to anyone who is named in and protected by the order.
  • If the court has not given you an extra copy for your local law enforcement agency, take one of your extra copies and deliver it to them.
  • You may wish to consider changing your locks and your phone number.

Back to top

What do I do if the abuser violates the order?

You can call the police. Violation of a protection order is contempt of court. The courts have the power to punish people for contempt when they disobey orders of the court or disrupt judiciary proceedings.

If the judge finds that your abuser violated the terms of your protection order, (s)he can find your abuser in contempt of court and fine or jail him, according to your own Tribal Code.

Note: Tribes do not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Tribal police do have authority to stop, detain and transport non-Indian offenders to state or federal authorities who have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian crimes. In addition, some tribes use their civil laws to impose civil fines or orders of exclusion to escort non-Indian abusers off tribal lands.

Possible options for punishment of non-Indians are fines, excluding him from appearing in your court, and excluding him from your tribal lands (keeping in mind that with all these options the abuser would still be granted due process of law, such as notice, a hearing and opportunity to be heard.)1

1 Family Violence and American Indians/Alaska Natives: A report to the Indian Health Service of Women's Health, Oct. 2002, available at 74.125.113.132/search

Back to top

What if I leave town?

Under Federal Law, once you have a protection order from any state or tribe, you can petition to have that order enforced in every state in the United State according to the Violence Against Women Act.1 However, before you go to another state or tribe you may want to call the local police in the area to alert them that you are moving to the area and that you have a protection order.2

When you get to the new area, you may want to call the courthouse to find out what the procedure is for registering your protection order. How and where you register your order can vary by location. According to federal laws, you do not have to register the protection order in order to have it enforced. Though registering your order can have some benefits, depending on your state's confidentiality laws, it is possible that registering your order could inform your abuser of your new address. Consult with a domestic violence women's advocate to determine whether registering your order will be in your best interest.

Note: Even though, by law, your tribal court protection order is valid off the reservation and throughout the country, what has been happening in some places is that women have been required by some state courts to also petition in their state courts for an order off the reservation.

You may want to consult an attorney or ask your court clerk about this -- under federal law, you should not have to file for more than one protection order at any given time. Make sure that the state courts know about your tribal court-issued order and have registered it so that it is enforceable off the reservation.

1 18 USC §2265
2http://www.vaw.umn.edu/documents/survivorbrochure/

Back to top

How do I change the order?

If you want to change your protection order, you will probably have to go back to court. There may be forms to fill out, and you may need to have another hearing. Ask for help at a local women's resource center or shelter, or ask the court clerk in the court that issued your protection order.

Back to top

What do I do when the order expires?

If your protection order expires, you might be able to petition the court for an extension of the original order, or you might not. It depends on the tribe or state court that issued your protection order in the first place.

If you would like to extend the protection order, ask the court clerk if it is possible to do so, and how to go about doing so. Finding out this information before your order expires can help protect your safety.

Back to top

What If I ask for an extension and my request is denied?

If you are not granted an extension on your original protective order, there are still some things you can do to stay safe. See our Staying Safe page for some ideas.

It might be a good idea to contact one of the domestic violence resource centers in your area to get help, support, and advice on how to stay safe. They can help you devise a safety plan and help connect you with the resources you need. See the Places that Help tab for places in your state.  Also, if your abuser abuses you again, then go back to court and apply for the order again.

Back to top