Abstract

The United States has recognized the power of American Indian tribes to make laws at least since 1934. Most tribes, however, did not write down many of their laws until the 1960s. Written laws have subsequently accumulated in well-organized codes, but scholars have not previously researched them. Using written materials and interviews with tribal officials, we describe the scope, motivation, and interpretation of tribal codes. With respect to scope, we found nine main types of codes that cover almost all fields of law over which tribes have jurisdiction. Few tribes have all nine types of codes. Tribes have internal and external motivations for codifying. Internal motivations include preserving culture, maintaining social order, and encouraging economic development. Financial incentives and demands for transparency supply outside motivation. Tribal officials interpret codes pragmatically, which resembles interpretation of codes in continental Europe. Finally, we note that law and justice sometimes require state or federal courts to use a tribal code to decide a case, but they seldom do so, which undermines tribal power and identity. Adapted from the source document.

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