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Statement on Tribal Governance

Points to consider when questioning "Who is in Charge?"

by John Wigle

Introduction and Background

Any person, corporation, or organization from the United States that wishes to conduct business with a federal tribe must do so in accordance with U.S. Federal Indian Law, Title 25 U.S.C. which includes established procedures for inter-government affairs with federally acknowledged tribes. From the early days of the fledgling American government came the Non-Intercourse Act which prohibited individuals and companies from dealing with Indians, and established a system of Indian Agents who would officiate and transact business with tribes. From those early days to the present, law has evolved into the current U.S. Policy of a Government-to-Government relationship and Self-Determination.

In layman's terms that means the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (a bureau of the Department of the Interior) is vested by the U.S. Congress as the official U.S. Representative to federally acknowledged tribes. Federal acknowledgement, much like under international law, establishes a government-to-government relationship between the governing body of the tribe and the U.S. Government. The U.S. Government takes care to ensure its representative responsibility with federal tribes is respected and has been known to take legal action against corporations or nullify contracts and transations which violate established protocol. Therefore, it is paramount that a person or corporation engaged in business with anyone or any company from a federal tribe ensure they have secured both the permission of the U.S. Government, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the governing body of the tribe.

How to Verify the Governing Body of a Tribe

If there is ever any question about who is in charge, the Bureau of Indian Affairs can provide you with a list of authorized points of contacts (or Tribal Leaders) for federally acknowledged tribes. Contacting either the BIA or that authorized contact can get your question answered. If a corporation or person conducts and transacts business with any other person or tribal faction they may face civil, and possibly criminal, legal action by the government or the governing body of the tribe.

For example, I sometimes hear Verizon and Niagara-Mohawk Power companies assert there are several factions within the tribe. As with any group of people, there is always a minority opinion. If anyone has a question about who has the lawful authority of any given tribe then they should contact the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The same would hold true if a question about who is in charge of the United Mexican States (Mexico) then you would contact the U.S. Department of State. And conversly, to deal with any other regime in Mexico, who is not in lawful authority, might be a criminal act by U.S. and Mexican Law. Additionally, corporations may not undermind the rightful authority of the governing body of a tribe because a minority opinion exists. The corporations must transact and conduct business with the approval of the governing body for their transactions to be valid and upheld in court.

If any U.S. persons should have questions about individuals claiming to have lawful tribal authority, then they should contact the New York field office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for verification. This is the proper Indian Affairs protocol for government-to-government relations. This closely models the international protocol for nation-states. To conduct or transact business without the permission and approval of the governing body, the Chiefs Council for the Tuscarora Nation, is in violation of federal law. Informally, a person may contact the authorized individual from the Tribal Leaders directory maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For the Tuscarora Nation of New York, the designated contact is the Clerk of the Nation, Chief Leo Henry.

File Created: 25 September 2001
Last Modified: Wed, July 23, 2014 at 02:59 PM

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Copyright © 2001, John Wigle. All rights reserved. Any legal information provide on my pages are for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorney for the specific legal options of your case.