Under federal law, the category "Native American" includes anyone descended from the people who lived in the United States before it was colonized. Tribes discovered centuries after the Mayflower reached shore are included, because their ancestors were here before European settlers arrived. The federal government respects this by recognizing that Native Americans have the right to self-government and their own legal system on reservation lands.
Tribes Are Sovereign Nations
Indian nations have tribal sovereignty under federal law. This means that tribes have the right to make their own rules and statutes, both governing their members and regarding their lands. Each tribe can establish its own government structure. This structure need not follow the laws of democracy that govern the rest of the country. Indian nations are still part of the United States, however, so the federal government retains some authority over them.
The Indian Civil Rights Act Protects Native Americans
Native Americans are U.S. citizens, so they have the same rights to civil liberties and constitutional freedoms that other U.S. citizens have. Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) in 1968 to make this clear. In most respects, the ICRA mirrors the U.S. Constitution. Indians have the same freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion that other U.S. citizens have. They have the same right to due process in legal matters. They can vote. Tribal governments are not allowed to override these rights. The ICRA and the Constitution differ in certain ways, however.
Freedom of Religion Is Different
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevents the government from declaring a national religion, and it separates church from state. This doesn't apply to Indian nations, because religion is often an important part of their government system. Tribal governments can affiliate themselves with their own religions. However, they cannot mandate that an individual tribe member practice that religion. A member of the Sioux tribe can convert to Mormonism, for example, and the tribe cannot prohibit it or punish that member.
Other Exceptions Exist
Some differences relate to criminal law. When charged with a crime, U.S. citizens have the right to legal representation. If an individual cannot afford a lawyer, the state must provide a public defender at state expense. Although the ICRA states that those accused of crimes have the right to a lawyer, the tribal nation doesn't have to pay for it. Nations also have the right to set rules for non-tribal attorneys who want to practice in their tribal courts. Typically, the outside attorney would have to demonstrate an understanding of the tribal system and its laws.
A Civil Rights Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding the rights of Native Americans is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a civil rights lawyer.