Structure of a Tribal Government

Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

In this lesson we will learn what tribal governments are and how they are structured. We will also learn about their relationships with United States federal and state governments.

Tribal Government

Did you know that there are over 550 independent nations within the United States? Each federally recognized tribe of Native American people has its own government called a tribal government. Each tribal government is an important part of the American government system. A tribal government interacts with the federal government as a sovereign nation and has legal jurisdiction over its own land. Tribal sovereignty was formed as a result of hundreds of treaties and federal actions between the U.S. government and Native American tribes.


Tribal governments can impose taxes, pass laws and create a court system. They provide many programs and services to the people they govern such as education, emergency services, social programs and land management. They also maintain infrastructure such as roads and public works facilities.

How do tribal governments organize themselves in order to accomplish these tasks? Many tribes have a tribal constitution somewhat like the U.S. Constitution. Because of this their tribal government is similar to that of the United States federal government with three branches of government that allow for a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. These governments will have a Chief, sometimes called a Governor or President, who holds the executive power. (This is often an elected position.) A Tribal Council will hold the legislative power to create laws. A tribal court system will have judicial powers to enforce those laws and settle disputes within its jurisdiction. However, some tribe's constitutions do not call for separate branches of power. In this case, the tribal government consists of a Tribal Council which is led by a Tribal Chair. This council is one entity that handles all of the executive, legislative and judicial duties for the tribal government.

Picture of a Big Head Tribal Council meeting from 1932.
tribal government

Relationship with the Federal Government

All relationships between tribal governments and the federal government are unique and were formed via treaties and legal actions. However, in most of these relationships the federal government is responsible for protecting tribes and their properties as a whole, while the tribal government is responsible for overseeing its people and lands. This means that although each tribal nation is recognized as sovereign, the U.S. Congress can still pass laws that affect some tribal governments.

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