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Tribal Crime and Justice: Social and Legal Contexts

Date Published
February 18, 2013

Social Context

Researchers must understand Native American culture before they can interpret American Indian (AI) and Alaska Native (AN) data. Indian Country and AN communities have greatly diverse cultures, histories, political organization and community structures. As of October 2012, there are 566 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. , and at least 300 more tribal nations have petitioned for federal or state recognition. Researchers should be mindful of this diversity when drawing conclusions or making generalizations so that they fully account for and acknowledge the uniqueness and complexity of AI and AN life and experiences.

That said, there are similarities among tribal communities. Many tribal communities are experiencing social and economic problems. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Native Americans remain the poorest of all minority groups, with unemployment rates hovering around 50 percent. [1] American Indian and Alaska Native communities are also sometimes characterized by high rates of alcoholism and substance abuse, substandard education, high suicide rates, and high crime rates.

Tribal nations have a unique legal and political relationship with the United States. The U.S. recognizes the tribes' rights to self-governance and supports their tribal sovereignty. Federally recognized tribes in the U.S. are considered domestic dependents and have the inherent authority to govern themselves within the borders of the country. Tribal members have U.S. citizenship rights but also maintain their own tribal governments, communities, and cultures. Some tribal nations rely on state and federal governments for law enforcement, but many tribes have their own government and justice systems.

Supreme Court rulings and legislation, however, have hampered tribes' rights to self-governance. [2] Most tribal nations depend on state and federal governments for various resources (e.g. , funding, technology, facilities) and for prosecuting felonies. As a result, tribal communities and leaders continue to struggle to protect their land, cultures and political rights, which has led to greater legal, political and cultural assertions of tribal sovereignty.

Some tribal nations model their justice system after a Western approach. Others favor a more traditional system grounded in local culture and tradition. Some favor a mixed model incorporating both traditional and Western styles. As a result, the legal and justice structures in these nations are complex and location specific.

Read more about the challenges for research that multiple and overlapping justice systems cause.

Date Published: February 18, 2013