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Tribal-State Relations

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) have been working together for five years to promote intergovernmental cooperation between states and tribes through a State-Tribal Relations Project.

What is the State-Tribal Project and why is it important?

States and Indian tribes have a range of common interests. Both states and tribes have a shared responsibility to use public resources effectively and efficiently; both seek to provide comprehensive services such as education, health care and law enforcement to their respective citizens; and both have interconnected interests in safeguarding the environment while maintaining healthy and diversified economies.

The parallel and sometimes overlapping responsibilities involved in implementing these mutual objectives has created jurisdictional disputes that have led to lawsuits. This project strives to improve upon and facilitate more effective state-tribal cooperation so that litigation is not necessary.


In this country, 50 state governments and more than 550 tribal governments are expected to protect the health, safety and welfare of their citizens. By keeping these objectives in mind, both entities may realize that they have more in common than in conflict and that coordination and cooperation between states and tribes can be beneficial to all.

Why should state legislators be involved?

Just as individual states are "sovereign" governments, Indian tribes also are self-governed and have been for centuries. As tribes have expanded their capacity to exercise self-governance and the visibility of tribal governments has increased in recent years, it has become progressively more important for states to interact with tribes as fellow governments.

As part of their job, many state legislators must address policy issues--such as law enforcement or taxation--that involve sensitive matters related to tribal jurisdiction and shared governance. Some states are unfamiliar with the workings of tribal governments and the importance of tribal customs and beliefs. If legislators are uninformed, or misinformed, about the unique status and concerns of Indian communities, those communities may not be adequately served. Correspondingly, state lawmakers will want to be aware of the effects legislation can have on American Indian constituents. Both states and tribes-and the citizens who inevitably travel between the jurisdictions of these governments-benefit immensely from respectful and open government-to-government relationships between state and tribal governments.

Why should tribal leaders be involved?

Although direct government-to-government relations with the federal government remains a fundamental principle of the trust relationship, it is important that tribes recognize the benefits of understanding state governmental processes and potential avenues for collaboration. In a climate of increased devolution of federal programs, the need for intergovernmental coordination is an inevitable reality.

State legislatures are responsible for appropriating funds for state programs that may be of benefit to tribes or to tribal members who also are citizens of the state. By increasing knowledge of how a state budget is allocated and how state legislatures operate and by building an open, working relationship with legislators who represent a tribal community's district, tribes can maximize the positive effects of state programs and services. Several states (such as Oregon and Washington) have established successful models of state-tribal cooperation, and these models can provide effective tools in establishing improved intergovernmental relations with states.

Components of the State-Tribal Relations Project



  • We have established a 12-member advisory council of state legislators and tribal leaders from across the country. The council meets twice a year to provide direction for all project activities and to discuss steps and models that might facilitate more collaborative relationships.
  • Two national meetings per year bring together state legislators and staff, tribal leaders and staff, and other interested parties. These meetings identify ways in which intergovernmental cooperation can be beneficial to both states and tribes and provide a forum in which discussions can begin.
  • We can provide technical assistance to any state or tribe that would like to more fully understand state-tribal issues and/or establish a cooperative state-tribal relationship on shared concerns and specific policy issues.
  • Both NCAI and NCSL act as information clearinghouses that track state and federal legislative developments; answer a wide range of questions on state-tribal issues; and develop educational, policy-oriented publications for distribution to state legislators and tribal leaders and to the public at large.

For more information about the NCSL-NCAI State-Tribal Relations Project, contact:

Andrea Wilkins

National Conference of State Legislatures

(303) 364-7700



Diana Bob
National Congress of American Indians


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National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)
1301 Connecticut Ave NW, Suite 200, Washington D.C. 20036
Phone: (202) 466-7767, Fax: (202) 466-7797
Email: ncai@ncai.org