Attorney General June 1, 1995 Memorandum on Indian Sovereignty

 


Office of the Attorney General
Washington, D.C. 20530

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE POLICY ON INDIAN SOVEREIGNTY
AND GOVERNMENT-TO-GOVERNMENT RELATIONS WITH INDIAN TRIBES

PURPOSE: To reaffirm the Department's recognition of the sovereign status of federally recognized Indian tribes as domestic dependent nations and to reaffirm adherence to the principles of government-to-government relations; to inform Department personnel, other federal agencies, federally recognized Indian tribes, and the public of the Department's working relationships with federally recognized Indian tribes; and to guide the Department in its work in the field of Indian affairs.

I. INTRODUCTION

From its earliest days, the United States has recognized the sovereign status of Indian tribes as domestic dependent nations. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 1, 17 (1831). Our Constitution recognizes Indian sovereignty by classing Indian treaties among the "supreme law of the land," and establishes Indian affairs as a unique area of federal concern. In early Indian treaties, the United States pledged to "protect" Indian tribes, thereby establishing one of the bases for the federal trust responsibility in our government-to-government relations with Indian tribes. These principles continue to guide our national policy towards Indian tribes.

A. THE EXECUTIVE MEMORANDUM ON GOVERNMENT-TO-GOVERNMENT RELATIONS BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND INDIAN TRIBES

On April 29, 1994, at a historic meeting with the heads of tribal governments, President Clinton reaffirmed the United States' "unique legal relationship with Native American tribal governments" and issued a directive to all executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government that:

As executive departments and agencies undertake activities affecting Native American tribal rights or trust resources, such activities should be implemented in a knowledgeable, sensitive manner respectful of tribal sovereignty.

President Clinton's directive requires that in all activities relating to or affecting the government or treaty rights of Indian tribes, the executive branch shall:

1) operate within a government-to-government relationship with federally recognized Indian tribes;

2) consult, to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, with Indian tribal governments before taking actions that affect federally recognized Indian tribes;

3) assess the impact of agency activities on tribal trust resources and assure that tribal interests are considered before the activities are undertaken;

4) remove procedural impediments to working directly with tribal governments on activities that affect trust property or governmental rights of the tribes; and

5) work cooperatively with other agencies to accomplish these goals established by the President.

The Department of Justice is reviewing programs and procedures to ensure that we adhere to principles of respect for Indian tribal governments and honor our Nation's trust responsibility to Indian tribes. Within the Department, the Office of Tribal Justice has been formed to coordinate policy towards Indian tribes both within the Department and with other agencies of the Federal Government, and to assist Indian tribes as domestic dependent nations within the federal system.

B. FEDERAL INDIAN SELF-DETERMINATION POLICY

President Clinton's executive memorandum builds on the firmly established federal policy of self-determination for Indian tribes. Working together with Congress, previous Presidents affirmed the fundamental policy of federal respect for tribal self-government. President Johnson recognized "the right of the first Americans . . to freedom of choice and self-determination." President Nixon strongly encouraged "self-determination among the Indian people. President Reagan pledged "to pursue the policy of self-government" for Indian tribes and reaffirmed "the government-to-government basis" for dealing with Indian tribes. President Bush recognized that the Federal Government's "efforts to increase tribal self-governance have brought a renewed sense of pride and empowerment to this country's native peoples.

II. PRINCIPLES OF INDIAN SOVEREIGNTY AND THE TRUST RESPONSIBILITY

Though generalizations are difficult, a few basic principles provide important guidance in the field of Indian affairs: 1) the Constitution vests Congress with plenary power over Indian affairs; 2) Indian tribes retain important sovereign powers over their members and their territory, subject to the plenary power of Congress; and 3) the United States has a trust responsibility to Indian tribes, which guides and limits the Federal Government in dealings with Indian tribes. Thus, federal and tribal law generally have primacy over Indian affairs in Indian country, except where Congress has provided otherwise.

III. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE RECOGNITION OF INDIAN SOVEREIGNTY AND THE FEDERAL TRUST RESPONSIBILITY

The Department resolves that the following principles will guide its interactions with the Indian tribes.

A. THE SOVEREIGNTY OF INDIAN TRIBES

The Department recognizes that Indian tribes as domestic dependent nations retain sovereign powers, except as divested by the United States, and further recognizes that the United States has the authority to restore federal recognition of Indian sovereignty in order to strengthen tribal self-governance.

The Department shall be guided by principles of respect for Indian tribes and their sovereign authority and the United States' trust responsibility in the many ways in which the Department takes action on matters affecting Indian tribes. For example, the Department reviews proposed legislation, administers funds that are available to tribes to build their capacity to address crime and crime-related problems in Indian country, and in conjunction with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal police, provides essential law enforcement in Indian country. The Department represents the United States, in coordination with other federal agencies, in litigation brought for the benefit of Indian tribes and individuals, as well as in litigation by Indian tribes or individuals against the United States or its agencies. In litigation as in other matters, the Department may take actions and positions affecting Indian tribes with which one or more tribes may disagree. In all situations, the Department will carry out its responsibilities consistent with the law and this policy statement.

B. GOVERNMENT-TO-GOVERNMENT RELATIONSHIPS WITH INDIAN TRIBES

In accord with the status of Indian tribes as domestic dependent nations, the Department is committed to operating on the basis of government-to-government relations with Indian tribes.

Consistent with federal law and other Departmental duties, the Department will consult with tribal leaders in its decisions that relate to or affect the sovereignty, rights, resources or lands of Indian tribes. Each component will conduct such consultation in light of its mission. In addition, the Department has initiated national and regional listening conferences and has created the Office of Tribal Justice to improve communications with Indian tribes. In the Offices of the United States Attorneys with substantial areas of Indian country within their purview, the Department encourages designation of Assistant U.S. Attorneys to serve as tribal liaisons.

In order to fulfill its mission, the Department of Justice endeavors to forge strong partnerships between the Indian tribal governments and the Department. These partnerships will enable the Department to better serve the needs of Indian tribes, Indian people, and the public at large.

C. SELF-DETERMINATION AND SELF-GOVERNANCE

The Department is committed to strengthening and assisting Indian tribal governments in their development and to promoting Indian self-governance. Consistent with federal law and Departmental responsibilities, the Department will consult with tribal governments concerning law enforcement priorities in Indian country, support duly recognized tribal governments, defend the lawful exercise of tribal governmental powers in coordination with the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies, investigate government corruption when necessary, and support and assist Indian tribes in the development of their law enforcement systems, tribal courts, and traditional justice systems.

D. TRUST RESPONSIBILITY

The Department acknowledges the federal trust responsibility arising from Indian treaties, statutes, executive orders, and the historical relations between the United States and Indian tribes. In a broad sense, the trust responsibility relates to the United States' unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribes. Congress, with plenary power over Indian affairs, plays a primary role in defining the trust responsibility, and Congress recently declared that the trust responsibility "includes the protection of the sovereignty of each tribal government." 25 U.S.C. § 3601.

The term "trust responsibility" is also used in a narrower sense to define the precise legal duties of the United States in managing prosperity and resources of Indian tribes and, at times, of individual Indians.

The trust responsibility, in both senses, will guide the Department in litigation, enforcement, policymaking and proposals for legislation affecting Indian country, when appropriate to the circumstances. As used in its narrower sense, the federal trust responsibility may be justiciable in some circumstances, while in its broader sense the definition and implementation of the trust responsibility is committed to Congress and the Executive Branch.

E. PROTECTION OF CIVIL RIGHTS

Federal law prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin by the federal, state and local governments, or individuals against American Indians in such areas as voting, education, housing, credit, public accommodations and facilities, employment, and in certain federally funded programs and facilities. Various federal criminal civil rights statutes also preserve personal liberties and safety. The existence of the federal trust responsibility towards Indian tribes does not diminish the obligation of state and local governments to respect the civil rights of Indian people.

Through the Indian Civil Rights Act, Congress selectively has derived essential civil rights protections from the Bill of Rights and applied them to Indian tribes. 25 U.S.C. § 1301. The Indian Civil Rights Act is to be interpreted with respect for Indian sovereignty. The primary responsibility for enforcement of the Act is invested in the tribal courts and other tribal fora. In the criminal law context, federal courts have authority to decide habeas corpus petitions after tribal remedies are exhausted.

The Department of Justice is fully committed to safeguarding the constitutional and statutory rights of American Indians, as well as all other Americans.

F. PROTECTION OF TRIBAL RELIGION AND CULTURE

The mandate to protect religious liberty is deeply rooted in this Nation's constitutional heritage. The Department seeks to ensure that American Indians are protected in the observance of their faiths. Decisions regarding the activities of the Department that have the potential to substantially interfere with the exercise of Indian religions will be guided by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as well as by statutes which protect the exercise of religion such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.

The Department also recognizes the significant federal interest in aiding tribes in the preservation of their tribal customs and traditions. In performing its duties in Indian country, the Department will respect and seek to preserve tribal cultures.

IV. DIRECTIVE TO ALL COMPONENTS OF THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

The principles set out here must be interpreted by each component of the Department of Justice in light of its respective mission. Therefore, each component head shall make all reasonable efforts to ensure that the component's activities are consistent with the above sovereignty and trust principles. The component heads shall circulate this policy to all attorneys in the Department to inform them of their responsibilities. Where the activities and internal procedures of the components can be reformed to ensure greater consistency with this Policy, the component head shall undertake to do so. If tensions arise between these principles and other principles which guide the component in carrying out its mission, components will develop, as necessary, a mechanism for resolving such tension to ensure that tribal interests are given due consideration. Finally, component heads will appoint a contact person to work with the Office of Tribal Justice in addressing Indian isaues within the component.

V. DISCLAIMER

This policy is intended only to improve the internal management of the Department and is not intended to create any right enforceable in any cause of action by any party against the United States, its agencies, officers, or any person.

Janet Reno
Attorney General

Date: June 1, 1995

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