What is a Federally Recognized Tribe?

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A federally recognized tribe is an entity, American Indian or Alaskan Native, that is recognized as a sovereign government within the United States. Because of their recognition as federal tribes, they have a special relationship with the government of the United States. Aside from the right to tribal sovereignty, they are also entitled to certain benefits, protections and services from the United States as well.

Currently, there are 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Many were recognized originally through treaties with the United States government. The Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act of 1994 established the three ways Indian groups may now receive recognition: Congressional acts, federal administrative procedures or court orders.¹ For tribes that have lost their federal recognition, the only way to restore that recognition is through Congressional action.²

Unless specifically organized through their recognition, as sovereign entities, federally recognized tribes have the right to self-governance. This allows tribes to create their own unique forms of government: “tribes, therefore, possess the right to form their own governments; to make and enforce laws, both civil and criminal; to tax; to establish and determine membership; to license and regulate activities within their jurisdiction; to zone; and to exclude persons from tribal lands.”³ Some limitations do occur; tribes do not possess the authority to engage in war, foreign relations or issue their own currency. There are also some limitations regarding both civil and criminal law as well. For all of these, the federally recognized tribes rely upon the United States.

Indian tribes have been governing themselves for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They continue to do so today in light of all that has changed during that time. Many of the federally recognized tribes govern themselves in a democratic manner. While culture and tradition play a role in determining the exact structure of government, many of the democratic ideas that exist today have played a role in tribal governments as well: “many tribal governments provide checks and balances by separating power into branches similar to those in federal or state governments: executive, legislative and judicial.”⁴

However, tribal jurisdiction is tied for the most part to their people and lands. A federal Indian reservation is land reserved for one or more tribes through the treaties, Congressional action or court orders that federally recognized such tribes, but not every tribe has a reservation. There are over 56 million acres of land held in the United States, the smallest only 1.32 acres and the largest a 16 million acre Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.⁵ Some are reserved for cultural and historical purposes, but most of them are recognized to give Indian tribes their own land.

Although much has changed for Indian tribes over the last several hundred years, most federally recognized tribes acknowledge the importance of the rights and protections they do possess. Nonetheless, tribes continue to fight to defend those rights and preserve their governments and ways of life. Preserving their tribal sovereignty guarantees the tribes will have a say in their future, policy surrounding tribal law and protection of their property.

Richard James Grellner, attorney at law and owner of RJG Law, PLLC, specializes in tribal law in Oklahoma. RJG Law specializes in intra-tribal relationships as well as those existing between tribes and the federal government, state governments, and non-Indian corporations.

Property rights and business contracts are popular areas of dispute, but our Oklahoma tribal law firm has worked with several tribes including the Otoe-Missouria, Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, Comanche Nation, Eastern Shawnee Tribe and more on a wide variety of legal concerns.

Interested in learning more about how Richard Grellner and the team at RJG Law can help you?

Email us today at rjgrellner@hotmail.com.


  1. “Why Tribes Exist in the United States Today,” U.S. Department of the Interior.
  2. Ibid
  3. “Our Nation’s American Indian and Alaskan Native Citizens,” U.S. Department of the Interior.
  4. “How Do Tribal Governments Work?” Southeastern Oklahoma State University, August 30, 2016.
  5. “Why Tribes Exist in the United States Today,” U.S. Department of the Interior.


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