Indian Reservations: Definition, Types & Jurisdictional Issues

Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Indian reservations hold a special place within the context of American government and inter-governmental relations. In this lesson, you'll learn what an Indian reservation is, as well as the different types of reservations and related jurisdictional issues.

Reservation Defined

The term reservation refers to land set aside by a government for a particular purpose. Examples of federally reserved lands include military bases, public parks, and Indian reservations. In this lesson, we'll be looking at Indian reservations.

Indian reservations consist of land set aside by the federal government for the use of Native American tribes. The legal title (ownership) to the land is actually held by the U.S. government, which the holds the land in trust for each tribe. A tribe may have acquired a reservation though a treaty, an executive order, or by federal statute. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, about 56.2 million acres of land is held in trust by the federal government for the tribes and individuals. Current Indian reservations range in size from a little over an acre of land in California constituting a tribal cemetery to the 16 million-acre Navajo Reservation. You should keep in mind that not every recognized Native American tribe has a reservation.


Indian reservations hold a unique place within the governmental structure of the United States. Federally recognized Native American tribes are sovereign entities, which means they generally have the right to govern without undue interference from outsiders. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 'Tribes… possess the right to form their own governments; to make and enforce laws, both civil and criminal; to tax; to establish and determine membership (i.e., tribal citizenship); to license and regulate activities within their jurisdiction; to zone; and to exclude persons from tribal lands.'

However, tribal sovereignty is not without limits in our legal and political system. Tribes lack pretty much the same powers that states lack. A tribe is prohibited from engaging in international relations, such as entering into a treaty with a foreign country or declaring war. They are not allowed to print or issue money. Also, since title to reservation land is held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of the tribe, the tribe doesn't have the power to sell trust land. You must hold legal title to sell land, and the federal government is the one with legal title.


Most tribal governments are organized very similar to how the U.S. government is organized. Many tribes have enacted constitutions or similar documents that serve as the legal foundation for the formation of their governments. The majority of tribes have formed three separate branches of government (just like the federal government) with an executive, legislative, and judicial branch. Tribes usually select their chief executive and legislators democratically through elections. Let's take a quick look at each branch.

The head of the executive branch is usually known as the chairman, chairwoman, or chairperson. The chief executive often heads the legislative branch, which typically is known as the tribal council. Tribal councils enact laws just like Congress or a state legislature does. Tribal courts have civil jurisdiction over both tribal members and non-tribal members who live on or conduct business within the reservation. Tribal courts also have criminal jurisdiction over tribal members living or conducting business in the reservation in matters of tribal law.

Relationship with States

It's important to realize that a reservation is not part of a state, even though it sits inside a state's boundaries. Remember, tribes are sovereign. This means that state governments have no control over tribal governments and have no power to regulate matters within the boundaries of a federal reservation unless Congress authorizes such control. For example, Congress enacted Public Law 280 in 1953 that gave certain states criminal jurisdiction over tribal members and other people on reservations in the state.

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