Legal Terms pertaining to Indian Country:

Contents of this Section Include:

i. Legal Term Definitions pertaining to Indian Country.
ii. Various Maps of Tribes and Tribal Nations.
iii. Political Associations of Tribes including Pre-Contact Primary Systems of Law (and related information).

i. Legal Term Definitions pertaining to “Indian Country”:

     The term “Indian” connotes very different meanings to people: some consider the colloquialism derogatory and offensive (and inaccurate) while others wear it proudly.  According to the U.S. Supreme Court, Indian is a legal term, usually pertaining to American Indians rather than to Hindu people (another colloquialism) from India.

     Below you’ll find short description for several legal terms pertaining to American Indian Tribes.  Click any of the following terms (or related sub-terms) for the full definition as recorded within federally-recommended law dictionaries.


     Our intention for posting these terms is to help interpret and inform regarding “what the law has previously decided” so that grievances may be effectively redressed without confusion or misunderstanding from within the courtroom.  The primary function of this website is to help people learn more about the systems of law, equity, and admiralty so that those who are facing injustice may make more informed decisions about how they navigate their interactions with the courts.


American Indian tribe – a definable group characterized by sociological, cultural, and familial links residing on one reservation.  aka federally-recognized tribe.  Section includes definitions for tribe; Indian; Indian ChiefIndian bandIndian NationIndian maize; Indian war.

  • treaty – a contract formally signed, ratified, or adhered to between two countries or sovereigns, or a contract between two or more states that is governed by international law.  Section includes definitions for treaty powerIndian treatytreaty trader.
  • reservation – a country’s formal declaration, upon signing or ratifying a treaty, that it becomes party to the treaty conditioned on the modification or amendment of one or more provisions of the treaty as applied in its relations with the other parties to the treaty.

fiduciary relationship – where one person is under a duty to act with a high degree of care (the fiduciary) for the benefit of another (the beneficiary) on matters within the scope of the relationship.

     Within the fiduciary relationship between each American Indian tribe and the U.S. federal government, the government, as fiduciary, must manage tribal affairs in the best interest of the tribes, who are the beneficiaries of the relationship.

fiduciary – someone who owes to another the duties of good faith, loyalty, due care, & disclosure in managing another’s money or property.

beneficiary – someone who is designated to receive something as a result of a legal arrangement or instrument.

     There is more than one type of fiduciary relationship between the federal government and tribes.  There is a guardian-ward relationship, wherein the government acts as guardian to each of the tribes, who are considered wards.

guardian – someone who has the legal authority & duty to care for another’s person or property, especially because of the other’s infancy, incapacity, or disability.

ward – a person, usually a minor, who is under a guardian’s charge or protection.

     Much as a parent owns and manages the estates of their children, a guardian owns and manages the estate of a ward so as to act in the child’s best interest.

     In addition to serving the roles of fiduciary and guardian, the federal government also serves as trustee within a settlor-trustee-beneficiary relationship.

trustee – someone with legal title to property that holds it in trust, with duties to convert to cash all debts and securities that are not qualified legal investments, to reinvest the cash in proper securities, to protect & preserve the trust property, and to ensure that it is employed solely for the beneficiary.

settlor – someone who makes a settlement of property; especially one who sets up a trust.

  • trust – a property interest held by one person (the trustee) at the request of another (the settlor) for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiary).

Additional Related Terms:

Indian country – all land within the borders of any Indian reservation together with the land occupied by any Indian community not on a reservation.

  • Indian land – land owned by the United States but held in trust for & used by the American Indians.
  • tribal land – any part of an Indian reservation not allotted to or occupied by individual Indians but instead held in common by tribal members.
  • Indian allotment – a conveyance of land by the U.S. to an individual Indian or to a tribe, the title of which is held in trust by the U.S.

Indian title – a right of occupancy, constituting possession rather than ownership, that the federal government grants to an American Indian tribe based on the tribe’s immemorial possession of the area.  aka aboriginal title.

Indian reservation – an area that the federal government has designated for use by an American Indian tribe, where the tribe generally settles & establishes a tribal government.

  • Indian law – the body of law dealing with American Indian tribes and their relationships to federal & state governments, private citizens, & each other.
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs – a unit in the U.S. Department of the Interior responsible for helping Indian and Alaskan native people manage their affairs under the trust relationship with the U.S. and for promoting programs for their benefit.
  • Indian marriage, adoption, and divorce – subject to local laws and established customs.
  • tribal court – a quasi-independent court composed of tribal members, usually situated on a reservation, varying in procedure according to local custom.
  • Tribal-Exhaustion Doctrine – the general principle that when an Indian tribal court has jurisdiction, the parties must pursue all remedies available under tribal law before turning to non-tribal courts. 

commerce with the Indian Tribes – governed by a separate set of laws known as Admiralty[1]

ii. Various Maps of Tribes and Tribal Nations:

     There were several different cultural regions, with many different tribes living within those cultural regions, prior to European arrival to North America:  Below are several maps which collectively help to give a better understanding as to their locations, languages, and  the botanical regions in which they inhabited.

Note: Click any of the following maps to enlarge.

Cultural Regions Map:
by Paul Mirocha [2]

     Within those cultural regions, the various tribes spoke from different language families.  Often, tribes of differing language families shared cultural similarities, however tribes who spoke the same language family shared little in common in regards to culture.

Language Families Map:

     Tribes also lived within different botanical regions — or more precisely — biomes

First Nations of North America Biomes Map
posted by Indigenous History & Canada on Facebook

     Next, here is a map which shows an overlay of the above maps:

Indigenous Language Families Map Overlaying Biomes and Historical Locations of Tribes and Tribal Nations;
Produced by the
Choices Program, Brown University,
as printed by National Geographic: 

“Pre-Contact Trade” Map:
from Encounters at the Heart of the World, A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn (page 19): [5]

A Second Map of Pre-Contact Trade Routes:
by The Smithsonian Institution:
National Museum of the American Indian

iii. Political Associations of Tribes including Pre-Contact Primary Systems of Law:
and related information

     This section is the least finished section of this page, containing very little information at this time.  Wild Willpower is currently working behind-the-scenes to complete this section.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy – northeastern tribes including the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora: “The People of the Longhouse.”

19 Pueblo Indian Tribes

The Oceti Sakowin (“Seven Fires”) Siouan-Speaking Tribes

California Indians


Disclaimer: All material throughout this website is pertinent to people everywhere, and is being utilized in accordance with Fair Use.

[1]: All definitions are shortened from combining:

[2]: Cultural regions map by Paul Mirocha saved from Ancient Origins, “Why Isn’t This Map in the History Books?” (2017):

[3]: First Nations of North America Map posted by Indigenous History & Canada on Facebook

[4]: Cultural regions, languages families, and biomes overlay map by The Choices Program, Brown University:

Preserved by National Geographic article, “TELLING THANKSGIVING’S STORY IN A VANISHING AMERICAN LANGUAGE” by by  (11-18-2015):

[5]: “Pre-Contact Trade” Map:
from Encounters at the Heart of the World, A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn (page 19)

[6]: Second Map of Pre-Contact Trade Routes
by The Smithsonian Institution:
National Museum of the American Indian


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