How tribal governments are related to state and federal governments
American Indian tribes are sometimes described as “nations within a nation.” In fact, some tribes call themselves “nations” or “people” instead of “tribes.” Although the tribes are located within the United States, our Constitution considers them separate governments.
The tribes have their own laws and governments. Generally, states do not interfere with tribal governments. Congress, however, has the power to pass laws that govern Indian tribes and their members. Congress tries to make laws that help American Indians, while respecting each tribe’s authority to pass its own laws and govern itself.
Tribal constitutions and branches of government
Many American Indian tribes have adopted constitutions similar to the U.S. Constitution. As a result, many tribes have branches of government similar to those in our state and federal governments. This allows for the separation of powers. Such tribes have:
Some Tribal constitutions, however, do not create separate branches of government. Some are governed only by a Tribal Council led by a Tribal Chair.
To see the difference, consider the following two examples:
The Constitution of the Yavapai-Apache Nation establishes:
Section 1. Three Branches of Government. The Yavapai-Apache government shall be divided into three (3) separate and independent branches of government: the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive Department. No person or group of persons charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any of the powers properly belonging to either of the others, except as this constitution may otherwise expressly direct or permit.
The Constitution of the White Mountain Apache Tribe on the other hand establishes:
Section 1. Governing Body. The governing body of the White Mountain Apache Tribe shall be known as the White Mountain Apache Tribal Council and shall consist of a Chairman, Vice Chairman and nine members to be chosen as follows: