UA NativeNet Develops Journalist’s Guide on Tribal Issues

The toolkit, while addressed to journalists, serves as an introduction for anyone wishing to gain more understanding on tribal governance and law.
Nov. 23, 2011

In the U.S., there are over 560 federally recognized tribes. The U.S. Census reports a population of about 1.9 million American Indian and Alaska Natives. There are 21 federally recognized tribes in Arizona, and the state is home to more than 250,000 American Indians. 

The unique reality of tribal membership can lead to misunderstandings and misinformation by those who don't live on Indian Country. For journalists, misunderstanding and misinformation simply isn't an option.

To help journalist be better informed and have ease of access to relevant information on issues relating to Indians and federal Indian law, the University of Arizona's program, a resource, training and education website on tribal governance and law, has developed a journalist toolkit. works to share the knowledge and expertise of the University of Arizona's work with Indian Nations and Indigenous Peoples and to deliver professional development and continuing legal education courses.

Melissa Tatum, an associate director of the Indigenous Peoples & Law Policy, or IPLP, program at the James E. Rogers College of Law, said the site, launched in 2006, was developed to serve tribal members, attorneys and students, especially those at tribal colleges but the need and interest for expertise on Native Nations and Indigenous people outside of the population has grown. is a joint project of IPLP and the UA law school with the UA's Native Peoples Technical Assistance OfficeNative Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy.

"The free toolkit my colleagues and I have put together addresses common misconceptions that journalists – and others – have about tribes and tribal members," said Tatum, who also is a UA research professor at the UA.

She listed the following aspects of tribal life and membership that often get reported inaccurately:

  • Indians pay federal income taxes on all earned-income just like every other American.
  • When referring to a specific tribe or a specific person, use the name of the tribe – Cherokee, Navajo, etc. When multiple tribes are involved, "Indian" or "Native" is generally preferred to "Native American."
  • Each government has authority within a defined geographic area. The area controlled by an Indian tribe is formally known as "Indian country."
  • The U.S. deals with the tribal governments as governments. Tribal governments are legitimate governments. They possess a degree of sovereignty, although they are limited in their ability to do things such as print money and enter into treaties with foreign countries.
  • Indians are subject to the laws of the U.S., just like every other American citizen.
  • States generally have no authority in Indian country, just as Colorado law does not apply in Wyoming. As a result of a federal law called Public Law 280, a handful of states have the ability to apply their criminal laws in Indian country and to have their courts resolve civil disputes arising in Indian country.
  • There are approximately 570 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., about 225 of which engage in gaming. For the vast majority of gaming tribes, the benefit is in creating jobs, not in direct revenue.

In addition, the toolkit contains 10 explanatory and introductory articles, lists common acronyms that appear in stories related to Indians, provides instruction on how to find an expert to assist in writing an article, sets out terms and definitions and details the Top Ten Things to Know about Indians.  

Added Tatum: "While specifically designed for journalists, this toolkit serves as an introduction for anyone wishing to gain more understanding. By visiting the website, they will find a vast resource on tribal issues."