Abstract

Can American Indian nations sue and be sued in federal and state courts? Specific issues are whether tribes have corporate capacity to sue, whether a Native group has recognized status as a tribe, and whether and to what extent tribes and their officers have governmental immunity from suit. Tribal capacity to sue is now well established, and federal law has well-defined procedures and rules for tribal recognition. But tribal sovereign immunity is actively disputed.

This paper reviews retained tribal sovereignty in general and summarizes past contests over tribal capacity to sue and their resolution into today’s settled rule. Next is a concise statement of the law on federal recognition of tribal entities. Most of the paper explains and analyzes ongoing issues about tribal immunity from suit. Tribal immunity has been continuously recognized from the first reported decision, but tribes’ commercial activities, modern attacks on immunity generally, and states rights proclivities of some justices jeopardize its existence. Much active litigation involves suits against tribal officers and possible application of the Ex parte Young doctrine. For many reasons, tribes are adopting carefully defined consents to suit, particularly in relation to tribal casinos. This paper’s essential purpose is to give tribes and their lawyers a full account of the law on tribal immunity and current disputes about it.


Collins, Richard B., To Sue and Be Sued: Capacity and Immunity of American Indian Nations (September 28, 2017). Creighton Law Review volume 51, edition 2, 2018 (Forthcoming); U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-21. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3044824

Richard B. Collins

University of Colorado Law School

Richard Collins is a professor at the University of Colorado Law School. He spent 15 years practicing Indian law with organizations such as California Rural Legal Assistance, California Indian Legal Services, Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe in Window Rock, Arizona, and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). Since joining the faculty, Professor Collins has continued work as a pro bono consultant to NARF and to Native American tribes, including the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. 

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