The Other American Law

69 Pages Posted: 8 Sep 2020 Last revised: 10 Sep 2020

See all articles by Elizabeth Reese

Elizabeth Reese

University of Chicago - Law School

Date Written: February 6, 2020


American legal scholarship focuses almost exclusively on federal, state, and local law. However, there are 574 federally recognized tribal governments within the United States whose laws are largely ignored. This Article brings to the fore the exclusion of tribal governments and their laws from our mainstream conception of “American law” and identifies this exclusion as both an inconsistent omission and a missed opportunity. Tribal law is no less “American law” than federal and state law. Tribal law is made, enforced, and followed by American citizens, and tribal governments have a distinct place as sub-sovereigns within the American system of overlapping sovereigns. Nor is tribal law less important, as tribes govern millions of Americans and as much land as California. And yet, tribal law is excluded from our shared conception of “American law”—and thereby our research projects, classrooms, and even conversations. This exclusion perpetuates the “othering” of Indians and the invisibility of both Indian people and their governments. Tribal governments were previously delegitimized and described as “lawless” to legitimize legal theories of conquest. But tribal law is real, and it is time to end its marginalization. Moreover, tribal law is vast, varied, and can be innovative. As demonstrated by the three examples in this piece, tribal governments struggle with the same problems that the other American sovereigns face, and their similarities, differences, successes, failures, and innovations can inform other American sovereign’s work or public law questions more broadly. Omitting tribal law from American legal scholarship is not only a troubling inconsistency, it is a missed opportunity—a disservice to the search for good government ideas. Tribal law belongs in the mainstream study of American law and legal systems. This Article places it there.

Keywords: Indian Law, Tribal Law, American Law, Constitutuional Law, Race and the Law, Colonialism, Federal Indian Law, Comparative Law, Separation of Powers, Voting, Redistricting, Jury Composition

Suggested Citation

Reese, Elizabeth, The Other American Law (February 6, 2020). 73 Stan. L. Rev. (2021, Forthcoming), Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Reese (Contact Author)

University of Chicago - Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637


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