Document Type



This Article explores the consequences of an anomaly in the Supreme Court’s Indian law jurisprudence. In the past few decades, the Court has sharply limited the regulatory powers of tribal governments and the jurisdiction of tribal courts while leaving intact the sovereign immunity that tribes have traditionally enjoyed. The result has been that tribes can avoid the effects of otherwise-applicable state and federal law, while at the same time they lack any affirmative powers to regulate events within their territory. This Article argues that this state of affairs is untenable. This Article first suggests that for tribes to exist as effective governments, their sovereign authority must have a territorial component. The Article then discusses the undesirable consequences of tribal sovereign immunity, including a lack of government accountability, increased uncertainty about the law’s reach, and inadequate compensation for tort victims. Ultimately, this Article concludes that, although it may be tempting for tribal advocates to embrace tribal sovereign immunity when the Supreme Court seems disinclined to preserve other elements of tribal sovereignty, relying on immunity as the cornerstone of sovereignty would be a mistake. Instead, tribes should take steps to strengthen the territorial component of their sovereign status.