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39 William Mitchell Law Review 611 (2013)


Professor Frank Pommersheim has written that “[t]ribal courts are the front line institutions that most often confront issues of American Indian self-determination and sovereignty.”1 It is only fitting, then, that an issue devoted to the legal history and survival of Dakota people includes some information about the role Dakota tribal courts play in furthering the aims of self-determination. Of the over 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States, most operate some form of dispute resolution or judicial system—and all have distinct, unique histories and stories.2 Little has been written about the Dakota legal systems, and it is in the spirit of tribal self-determination that we offer some foundational information.

This article focuses on the four Dakota tribal courts within the state of Minnesota.3 In Part I, we provide a basic history of Dakota tribal government in Minnesota, as well as a general overview of tribal courts. The article then explores the twentieth-century history of each Dakota tribal government, including the development of each court and the current laws that govern the tribe. Part II focuses on the Lower Sioux Indian Community. Part III focuses on the Prairie Island Indian Community. Part IV focuses on the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and Part V focuses on the Upper Sioux Community. The concluding section will offer some predictions as to the future development of the four courts. Readers will no doubt notice that we have more information on some tribes than others. Because there is no centralized database for compiling tribal court information, we have done our best to assess the information that is available to the public for understanding how Dakota courts work. We hope that readers will come away with a greater understanding of the significance and influence of Dakota tribal judiciaries.


This article is co-authored by John E. Jacobson.