The Right to Counsel for Indians Accused of Crime: A Tribal and Congressional Imperative

47 Pages Posted: 17 May 2013 Last revised: 24 Jan 2014

See all articles by Barbara Creel

Barbara Creel

University of New Mexico School of Law

Date Written: April 26, 2013


Native American Indians charged in tribal court criminal proceedings are not entitled to court appointed defense counsel. Under well-settled principles of tribal sovereignty, Indian tribes are not bound by Fifth Amendment due process guarantees or Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Instead, they are bound by the procedural protections established by Congress in the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968. Under the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA), Indian defendants have the right to counsel at their own expense. This Article excavates the historical background of the lack of counsel in the tribal court arena and exposes the myriad problems that it presents for Indians and tribal sovereignty.

While an Indian has the right to defense counsel in federal criminal court proceedings, he does not in tribal court. This distinction makes a grave difference for access to justice for Americans Indians not only in tribal court, but also in state and federal courts. The Article provides in-depth analysis, background, and context necessary to understand the right to counsel under the ICRA and the U.S. Constitution. Addressing serious civil rights violations that negatively impact individual Indians and a tribe’s right to formulate due process, this Article ultimately supports an unqualified right to defense counsel in tribal courts.

Defense counsel is an indispensable element of the adversary system without which justice would not “still be done.” Tribes, however, were forced to embrace a splintered system of justice that required the adversary system but prohibited an adequate defense. The legacy of colonialism and the imposition of this fractured adversary system has had a devastating impact on the formation of tribal courts. This legacy requires tribal and congressional leaders to rethink the issue of defense counsel to ensure justice and fairness in tribal courts today. The Article concludes that tribes should endeavor to provide counsel to all indigent defendants appearing in tribal courts and calls upon Congress to fund the provision of counsel to reverse the legacy of colonialism and avoid serious human rights abuses.

Suggested Citation

Creel, Barbara, The Right to Counsel for Indians Accused of Crime: A Tribal and Congressional Imperative (April 26, 2013). Michigan Journal of Race & Law, Vol. 18, p. 317, Spring 2013; UNM School of Law Research Paper No. 2014-01. Available at SSRN:

Barbara Creel (Contact Author)

University of New Mexico School of Law ( email )

1117 Stanford, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM 87131
United States

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics