Below is the abstract for “The Sovereignty Problem in Federal Indian Law,” available for download on SSRN.

There is a sovereignty problem in federal Indian law, namely, that the federal government’s sovereign defenses prevent tribal nations and individual Indian people from realizing justice in the courts. Often, compelling tribal and Indian claims go nowhere as the judiciary defers to the interests of the United States, even where Congress has expressly stated its support for tribal interests. Conversely, tribal judiciaries allow claims to proceed to the merits, invoking customary and traditional law to hold tribal governments accountable.

Sovereignty theory helps to explain why justice can be done in one court system but not another. But federal, state, and tribal courts are all American courts than can and should learn from one another. This paper is an effort to show that federal sovereign defenses are not inevitable, nor are they even necessary.


Matthew L.M. Fletcher

Reporter, American Indian Law Restatement

Matthew L.M. Fletcher is the Harry Burns Hutchins Collegiate Professor of Law at University of Michigan Law School. He teaches and writes in the areas of federal Indian law, American Indian tribal law, Anishinaabe legal and political philosophy, constitutional law, federal courts, and legal ethics.  He is a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and sits as the Chief Justice of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.