Indian / Native Land & Sovereign Immunity

My limited understanding is that if I go into an Indian / Native American casino on tribal land, and I slip & fall, I can probably sue for negligence in tribal court but I cannot sue the tribe in California (or other) court. This is because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which essentially says each tribe is sovereign and not subject to state law unless agreed to by compact.

My limited understanding is also that if you try to sue the tribe in “tribal court” or otherwise petition the tribe for damages, chances are you will get nowhere.

So, just by simply walking onto tribal land, you are gambling.

Is this accurate?

Also, if I rent a car and drive it onto a reservation that is completely surrounded by California land, am I driving “out of the state” for the purposes of the car rental company?

Any other interesting thoughts and tidbits on the relationship between states, feds, and tribes are welcome.

To clarify, when asked about practical and political realities in connection with tribal relationships with state, federal, and local governments and what he thinks tribal sovereignty means in the 21st Century, George Bush replied as follows:

It is a shared jurisdiction circumstance. Federal, state and tribal law often intersects. The assumption that one would “get no where” in suing in a tribal court is erroneous and in error at its core. It’s the same kinda of reasoning that leads us to believe that a Black defendant will not be convicted by an all Black jury.

All of that being said, it is difficult to answer your qeustion any more specifically because shared jurisdiction is established by law, treaty and agreement between Nation, federal and state authority.

In short, it depends. I will apologize if my response has obfuscated the situation even further.


It’s not an assumption but rather an impression based upon hearing anecdotes of people who tried to sue a tribe in a tribal forum, got nowhere, and were without jurisdiction in state court. Of course, it could be the cases had no merit.

I understand that a couple of anecdotes in the negative are likely to make an occasional news story blasting the concept of sovereign immunity and are in no way a proper sampling of tribal justice.

I was hoping someone had some better knowledge in this area than I.

Upon re-reading my response, it seems harsher than I intended. I apologize for the implication. Without alot more detail, it is impossible to answer with additional certainty. I am also not familiar with agreements or treaties between CA and the Nation in question. If we get no further or more suitable response, I would still be happy to discuss the issue with you privately via email.


It is an oversimplification, but you can look at each Tribe as basicly a very small State.

They are all thus subject to Federal Law.

Does that help?

Really can’t be helped in many cases.

Say you need to drive from Portland OR to the great metropolis of Ontario on the east side of the state. There are just two reasonable routes. I-84 goes thru the Umatilla Indian Reservation and US26 goes thru the Warm Springs Reservation. Similarly in Idaho, I-86 and I-15 both go thru the Fort Hall Reservation (nearly meeting on the reservation). It would make it quite difficult to travel around some parts of western Idaho if reservations were considered different states by nasty rental car companies. (And you do want to get out Pocatello don’t you?)

California, OTOH, did a fairly thorough job of eliminating, um, the “need” for large reservations early on. So not much worry there.