Indian Law

Indian tribes in the United States operate within a unique and dynamic legal environment developed through hundreds of years of federal policies. The foundations for this legal environment can be found in international law, federal common law and statutes, and law specific to each Tribe. Each Indian law issue is colored by existing treaties, the U.S. Constitution and executive orders. Ultimately, however, a tribe must continue to focus on leveraging existing law or developing new laws that protect sovereignty and ensure the tribe’s long-term success.

Key Contacts

Timothy M. Taylor Partner Sacramento, CA
Timothy L. McMahan Partner Portland, OR
James E. Torgerson Partner Anchorage, AK
See all contacts
Overview

Our Indian law team represents tribal governments, as well as companies, local and state governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations doing business with them. We understand the intersection of federal, state and tribal laws and policies, having handled transactions and conflicts with more than 40 Indian tribes across 15 states. Our team’s experience reflects the multi-disciplinary experience required when operating in Indian law and spans corporate management, business transactions, real estate and construction, energy and natural resources development, environmental compliance, tax advice, labor and employment law, employee benefits, and a wide range of litigation in tribal, state and federal forums.

Our team includes attorneys who’ve navigated Indian law as tribal attorneys; local, state or federal government attorneys; and regulators. 

Indian Country Resource and Energy Extraction and Development

It’s common for Indian tribes to have accessible natural and energy resources on their land, and tribal lands are often at the intersection of major energy transportation corridors, including electrical transmission and pipeline corridors. These represent opportunities for development by the tribe itself or through agreements with energy and mining interests. We handle all aspects of those transactions, including development and marketing advice, securing rights-of-way through tribal land, unique environmental regulations involving development on and outside reservations, and proceedings before regulators such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Our team is experienced with the relevant provisions of federal law on Indian Country oil, gas, mineral and renewable energy development and related land access rights such as rights-of-way and lease agreements.

Indian Country Business Transactions

We negotiate and draft contracts, agreements, leases and other documents for complex transactions involving tribal governments, tribal entities or related enterprises. Given that Indian tribes are governments with sovereign immunity and other governmental authority, we construct and document transactions with appropriate terms related to dispute resolution, immunity waivers, arbitration provisions and choice of forum. We continually monitor the ever-changing status of rules—and exceptions to rules—that affect the course of these agreements. Tribal entities also possess unique taxing authority when activities occur on reservation land, creating the need to address specific tax impacts and consider the merits of neutrality agreements, tax credits and specific business structures.

We provide counsel for commercial development on and off reservation including, but not limited to, entertainment and resort projects. This includes banking, financing, real estate acquisition, due diligence and contract negotiations with Indian tribes, and any associated tax issues, dispute resolution or federal approvals. 

Environmental Counsel

Development activities in Indian Country are subject to typical federal environmental laws; however, there are often specific Indian Country regulations or narrowly focused federal statutes that must be reviewed as well. Some tribal governments have enacted laws that are more protective of cultural and treaty-protected resources or treaty access rights than federal law would provide. We have experience working with projects and project staff involving development on Trust, allotted and fee lands covered by tribal laws, Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other applicable federal laws.

Indian water rights law is complex because Indian tribes possess federally reserved water rights. Our attorneys assist with water rights quantification, litigation, irrigation agreements and settlement, and provide advice and counsel related to intergovernmental agreements, water rights investigations and administration.

Litigation and Mediation

We’ve participated in numerous dispute resolution and mediation proceedings with Indian tribes and tribal entities involving bankruptcy, taxation, labor and employment, environmental law, water rights, land use, project development and eminent domain proceedings. Since disputes at times are argued before tribal courts, we have attorneys across the West admitted to them who engage in trials, appeals and exhaustion of tribal court remedies. In addition, we litigate in federal administrative forums including the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, the National Indian Gaming Commission and FERC.

Employment and Labor

We counsel private sector, government contractor and tribal government employers on employment and labor laws, including equal employment and Indian preference under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; Title VII exemptions for tribal government and Alaska Native Corporation employers; disability and leave laws; wage and hour laws, including the Service Contract Act; and tribal government employment laws. We advise on unionization campaigns and related National Labor Relations Act issues and assist with labor agreements. We also provide assistance with internal investigations and onsite training on various employment- and labor-related topics. In addition, our employee benefits team counsels employers on compliance with group benefit plans, insurance and retirement fiduciary duties, and overall fund management strategies.

Matters
  • Palomar Natural Gas Transmission Pipeline (pending FERC project). Proposed 220-mile, 36-inch diameter underground natural gas pipeline in Oregon that will cross BLM, USFS, private and tribal lands
  • Assist utility company in renewal of several hundreds of miles of transmission lines and in the process resolve access concerns held by landowner TribeCounsel public ports in addressing and honoring treaty reserved rights and access as part of the federal permitting process
  • Resolve irrigation ditch and canal rights-of-way issues on Trust land
  • Develop and secure federal approval of tribal codes related to natural resources management and development
  • Represent tribally owned small business in Tribal Employment Rights Office challenge regarding SBA certification
  • Represent tribal government in reserved water rights implementation agreements between state and federal agencies
  • Represent holder of promissory note in foreclosure proceedings tribal court forum
  • Advise restaurant and entertainment companies on alcohol regulation in Indian Country
Team
Insights & Presentations
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