Tribal Restrictions on Sharing of Indigenous Knowledge on Uses of Biological Resources


The Indian Civil Rights Act, rather than the federal Constitution, limits the power of an Indian tribe vis-à-vis its members. In interpreting provisions of the ICRA, it is appropriate to look to precedents under analogous constitutional provisions constraining federal and state action, although particular facts about tribal structure and traditions may be relevant to the analysis.

In some factual circumstances, a tribal ordinance prohibiting members from sharing, with researchers or others outside the tribe, information on possible commercial uses of biological resources would raise concerns under the free speech provision of the ICRA. The legality of such an ordinance would depend on a number of factors including how widely known the information is; whether those who hold the information have a particular relationship of trust with the tribe; the magnitude of the tribal interest underlying the tribe’s effort not to disclose the information; and whether the information can be viewed as tribal property under an intellectual property regime that is otherwise consistent with applicable law.

Updated July 9, 2014