Tribal sovereignty

Sovereignty is the retained right of a tribal nation to govern itself. Tribes existed as nations and governed themselves long before the United States of America was formed. They retained the right to govern themselves even when they ceded land under treaties with the U.S. government.

The U.S. Constitution recognizes Indian tribes as sovereign entities, just as it does “the several states.” The United States is home to 50 sovereign states and 562 sovereign Indian nations. States and tribes exercise their sovereign powers under federal authority within the limits established by the Constitution and centuries of legal precedent.

Tribes, like cities, states, and the federal government, cannot be sued without their consent. Sovereign immunity protects these jurisdictions from frivolous claims that drain public coffers. To respond to legitimate claims of injury or damage, tribal governments, cities, states, and the federal government carry liability insurance.

When a tribe is federally recognized, it is recognized by the U.S. government as a sovereign tribal entity for the purposes of interacting with federal agencies and receiving federal aid. Tribes must meet established federal standards to qualify for recognition. All 11 tribes in Minnesota have federal recognition.

Tribes are sovereign governments recognized by the U.S. Constitution. They have the same status as states and foreign nations under federal law.

Most tribes have Constitutions or governing Articles approved by the Secretary of the Interior. Typically, they elect a governing body and a Chairman, President or Chief who serves as the leader.

Each tribe sets its own citizenship criteria, just as states do. Most require proof of blood quantum or lineal ancestry.

The Constitution gives primary authority over tribes to Congress, not to states, except in specific instances under Public Law 280. Tribes are not subservient to states.

Public Law 280 gives some states, including Minnesota, limited authority to enforce criminal laws but not civil laws on Indian reservations. Tribes regulate their own civil affairs.


Tribal casinos are tax-exempt because they are government operations, not private, for-profit businesses. Just as state lottery revenues are reserved for use by the state, tribal gaming revenues are reserved for use by the tribes. Congress did not intend tribal gaming to be a revenue source for states.

Indian citizens pay federal income taxes on all income, including payments from gaming revenues. The vast majority of Indians pay state income and local property taxes, too. The only exceptions are those tribal members who both live and work on the reservation, a relatively small percentage of all Minnesota Indians.

Tribes do not pay income taxes because they are governments rather than private, for-profit businesses. Tribes generally do not pay property taxes, because most of their facilities are located on federal trust land. However, in cases where tribal facilities are located on fee land (land not held in trust by the federal government), tribes and Indian individuals do pay property taxes. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, for example, is one of the largest taxpayers in its region.

No. Federal aid goes to tribal governments, not individuals. In rare cases, individual tribal members may receive direct payments as part of negotiated or court-ordered settlement of land, treaty, mineral rights, or other claims.

Most tribes have formal agreements with local governments to pay for police, fire, ambulance and other emergency services. Some make voluntary contributions to support these services.

Tribal lands

A reservation is a geographic area with defined boundaries recognized by the U.S. for a tribe to live and govern its people. Some tribal members choose to live on the reservation; others do not.

Most reservations include both trust and fee lands. Fee lands are privately owned lands within the boundaries of the reservation. Despite treaties reserving these lands for tribes, the government sold off selected parcels to individuals. Fee lands are subject to local property taxes. Trust lands are held for tribes by the federal government and cannot be sold or taxed.

Land has great spiritual and cultural significance to tribes. Even in modern times, activities like hunting, fishing, gardening and logging provide a vital connection to Indian culture and traditions.

There are about 56 million acres of Native American lands nationwide – a territory roughly the size of Minnesota.

Tribes can have new lands taken into trust with the approval of the Secretary of the Interior or by action of Congress. Local officials are given the opportunity to comment on such requests.

From 1887-1934, the federal government illegally seized and sold 90 million acres of tribal land to settlers without compensating tribes. The trust process allows tribes to recover some of those lands to meet the needs of growing tribal communities.

Taking land into trust for gaming purposes is a long and complicated process. The Secretary of the Interior is required to evaluate the economic, environmental and social impacts of any proposed transfers of land into trust. Only a handful of such transfers for gaming purposes have been approved in the past 25 years.

The Secretary of Interior must consult with state and local governments before approving a fee-to-trust request. Those governments have a right to oppose and/or appeal determinations.

Land is commonly taken off tax rolls for various government purposes. Tribes acquire trust land for public purposes such as housing, schools, infrastructure development, and business creation. In addition, tribes assume responsibility for services on trust land, which makes paying taxes to an external government unreasonable.

When land is taken into trust by tribes for a productive public purpose, counties usually gain far more economically than they lose. In most cases, the land is available because it has been unused or is tax-forfeit.

Indian gaming 101

In the case of State of California v. the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that sovereign Indian tribes could conduct gambling on tribal lands without interference from the state as long as gambling was legal in the state where the tribe was located.

IGRA indicates that tribes must be the “sole owner and primary beneficiary” of Indian gaming activities. It prohibits states from taxing tribal gaming revenues, but it allows tribes to negotiate payments to state and local governments for services provided. Under the compacts, Minnesota tribes pay the state a fixed fee to cover enforcement costs. Tribes also pay for background checks for key employees. In addition, many tribes contract with local jurisdictions for police, fire and emergency services.

About half of the nation’s 562 tribes have gaming operations. In 2013, there were 479 casinos (Class II and Class III) operated by 245 tribes in 28 states. Some tribes have decided not to pursue gaming. Others have run into roadblocks from state governments that refuse to negotiate gaming agreements.

Of the 11 Indian tribes in Minnesota, four are Dakota and seven are Ojibwe/Chippewa. They operate a total of 18 casinos.

Through the compact negotiation process, tribal governments granted the State of Minnesota substantial powers to regulate gaming at Indian casinos. The compacts allow the Minnesota Department of Public Safety to:

  • Inspect without notice any premises or records related to slot operations;
  • Test and approve all slot machines, and remove from play any machines that are non-compliant with compact standards;
  • Prohibit the purchase of slot machines from unlicensed vendors;
  • Require retention of a CPA to audit books and records of slot operations;
  • Gain access to accountant work papers;
  • Review all sources of slot revenue, expenses and operational costs to confirm that gambling proceeds are going to the tribe as required by federal law;
  • Require background checks before licensure of key gaming management employees;
  • Deny licensure to management companies considered a threat to public interest;
  • Regulate rules of play for blackjack and payouts for video slot machines;
  • Specify staffing and surveillance requirements for blackjack; and
  • Impose and collect specified fees to reimburse the state for enforcement costs.

Indian gaming impacts

A few small tribes near large urban markets have become successful, but most tribes are located in remote rural markets with limited revenue potential. The majority of tribes are still struggling to meet community needs.

Tribal gaming earns about 43% of all U.S. gaming revenues, according to the most recent Indian Gaming Industry Report by economist Alan Meister.

On average, tribes retain about 10% of the gross wager after prize payouts, operating expenses, and debt retirement. Many casinos rely on associated hotel, restaurant, and other entertainment/recreation revenues to earn a profit.

Tribes, like states, use their gaming revenues for government purposes such as housing, education, health care, courts and law enforcement, emergency services, roads, water and sewer systems, social services, business development, and cultural preservation.

Despite some progress, most reservations still have unacceptably high rates of poverty, unemployment, and disease. There is still a long way to go before the damage of the past 200 years can be offset.

Most people gamble responsibly, but MIGA supports programs and services for those who have a problem. Learn more at Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance.

There is no evidence to suggest that the presence of Indian casinos increases crime. In fact, many rural casino counties have experienced the opposite effect; increased jobs and business growth have helped reduce crime. Many tribes contract with local jurisdictions for law enforcement services and make payments to offset casino-related law enforcement costs.

No. There is no law or agreement between tribes and the state that would prohibit the state from operating casinos if it chooses to do so. The state already operates the lottery. In addition, nonprofit organizations sell charitable pull tabs, and pari-mutuel racing and card games are offered at Canterbury Park and Running Aces Harness Track.

MIGA is concerned about the precedent that off-reservation expansion would set. Once the door is open to state-sponsored or commercial gaming in Minnesota, it will be very difficult to close it. With decreased gaming revenue due to more gaming outlets, tribes would be unable to sustain the progress being made for their people and communities.