Tribe (Native American)

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In the United States, an Indian tribe, Native American tribe, tribal nation or similar concept is any extant or historical clan, tribe, band, nation, or other group or community of Indigenous peoples in the United States. Modern forms of these entities are often associated with land or territory of an Indian reservation. "Federally recognized Indian tribe" is a legal term of art in United States Law with a specific meaning.

An Indian tribe recognized by the United States government usually possesses Tribal sovereignty, a "dependent sovereign nation" status with the Federal Government that is similar to that of a state in some situations, and that of a nation in others. Depending on the historic circumstances of recognition, the degree of self-government and sovereignty varies somewhat from one tribal nation to another.

Legal definition in the United States

The term is defined in the United States for some federal government purposes to include only tribes that are federally recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act [43 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.]. Such tribes, including Alaska Native village or regional or village corporations recognized as such, are known as "federally recognized tribes" and are eligible for special programs and services provided by the United States. The U.S. federal government maintains a list of ("enrolls") the members of these tribes.

Some tribes, such as the Little Shell Chippewa, do not have federal recognition, but are recognized at the state level using procedures defined by various states, without regard to federal recognition. Other tribes are unrecognized because they no longer exist as an organized group or because they have not completed the certification process established by the government entities in question.

Some Federally recognized tribes are federations of more than one tribal nation, formed by the U.S. federal government or by treaty with the U.S. government for the purpose of being assigned to reservations. For example, 19 tribes that existed in 1872 combined at that time to form the Colville Confederated Tribes, which is now the single federally recognized tribe that makes up the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state.

Other uses

The international meaning of the English word tribe is a people organized by a non–nation-state government, who typically claim descent from a common founder. In this context, a nation may comprise several tribes. Crudely, a nation speaks a language, however that is conceived, while its tribes may or may not speak various dialects of that language. However, in the United States, the word "tribe" has long been used for any tribal people, whether they are tribes or nations of tribes. Thus, in this context, the word "band" is often used for the traditional concept of a tribe.

In addition to their status as legal entities, tribes have political, social, historical, and other aspects. The term is also used to refer to various groups of Native Americans bound together for social, political, or religious purposes, including descendants of members of these groups. Tribes are typically characterized by distinct territory, and common language or dialect.[1] Other characteristics include common culture and ethnicity.

Tribes are susceptible to overlapping external and internal definition. Whereas outsiders use their own definitions for what a tribe is, and who is a member, depending on the purpose, tribes may have their own definition of identity and membership. To the extent that many tribes are acknowledged as sovereign nations, the United States does recognize some limited rights of tribes to decide membership by their own criteria.


The word "Indian" is the legal term used by the U.S. Government to refer to Native Americans, but outside of the legal context, there is controversy over whether it is the most appropriate terminology. The word has often become part of the English-language names of the tribes because of the historical process and common terms when the name was developed, and not always at the people's choice. While some indigenous people are comfortable with the word "Indian," others believe it is pejorative by nature. Terms such as "Native people", "Native American", or "Indigenous" are sometimes preferred. In Canada, the term "First Nations" is preferred for defining Aboriginal peoples.

See also

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