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Contracting With Indian Tribes and Resolving Disputes: Covering the Basics

Neil G. Westesen, Natural Resources Development in Indian Country (2005)

For centuries, Congress has recognized Indian tribes as independent sovereign nations. 1 Due to this recognized inherent sovereign power predating the existence of the United States, tribes have long been described as “domestic, dependent nations.” 2 Tribal sovereignty is unique and tribes retain those attributes of sovereignty not otherwise withdrawn or surrendered by treaty, statute, or implication as a result of a tribe's dependent status. 3

Today, Indian reservation lands consist of 55.7 million acres. 4 There are more than 562 unique sovereign Indian tribes recognized by the federal government, varying in population from a few hundred members to more than 600,000. 5 Business and contractual opportunities exist in Indian Country 6 just like anywhere else in the United States. And as economic life flourishes on Indian reservation land, so do contracts between tribes and non-Indians for work on this land. Nevertheless, because of tribal sovereignty, a contract with a tribe is atypical in that it is not subject to contractual common law. Instead, contracts arising on Indian reservation land can vary with each Indian tribe.

The validity and enforceability of a contract with an Indian tribe rests with the people having tribal authority and jurisdiction over the particular Indian reservation land. Additionally, not all tribes have a constitution or formal govern