The Forgotten Sovereigns

61 Pages Posted: 21 Sep 2009 Last revised: 11 Mar 2010

See all articles by Tonya Kowalski

Tonya Kowalski

Washburn University School of Law


Our federal system includes 562 federally-recognized American Indian nations, most of whom have their own sovereign lands, governments, and court systems, and who interact every day with the state and federal systems. Yet most legal thought overlooks our sovereign Native American nations and legal heritage. Although much of American law and policy intersects Tribal jurisdictions, such issues generally appear in the law school curriculum only in specialized, upper-level courses. This Article argues that the three-sovereign system should provide the fundamental framework for the United States legal system across the legal curriculum, and provides several concrete examples for how to do so. It also argues that many law courses should touch upon how their disciplines impact Tribal jurisdictions and their citizens.

By changing our fundamental orientation toward the role of Tribal sovereigns in the U.S. system, we will advance the academy’s goals of scholarship, teaching, and service. First, we will accurately represent the true structure and diversity of our tripartite federal system. Second, we can improve learning by using direct and comparative Tribal perspectives for fundamental legal principles and methods. Third, we can further the social justice mission by raising awareness of Tribal sovereignty among future advocates and lawmakers.

Keywords: tribal, tribal law, tribal government, tribal courts, native american, sovereignty, legal writing, law curriculum, legal system, social justice, cultural literacy, critical race theory, indian law, indigenous, selecting authority, customary law, three-sovereign, tri-sovereign

Suggested Citation

Kowalski, Tonya, The Forgotten Sovereigns. Florida State University Law Review, Vol. 36, No. 4, 2009. Available at SSRN:

Tonya Kowalski (Contact Author)

Washburn University School of Law ( email )

1700 College Avenue
Topeka, KS 66621
United States


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