The Capitalization of “Tribal Nations” and the Decolonization of Citation, Nomenclature, and Terminology in the United States

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49 Mitchell Hamline Law Review 623 (2023)


As the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, we are in the process of sharing our knowledge, worldviews, legal traditions, culture, and language from our own perspectives. This is an ongoing process, and this Article should be considered as a statement in time that invites updates as necessary. For hundreds of years, Native peoples on this continent have had several European languages imposed through colonization, primarily the English, French, and Spanish languages. Extending beyond resistance to colonization, Indigenous peoples are engaged in decolonizing our histories, accounts, ways of life, and the very terms used to define, confine, and colonize Indigenous existence by Europeans and Euro-Americans.

Within the U.S. legal profession and field of law, words have consequences that are often detrimental to Native peoples in Native homelands. First, this Article will review the basics on the political status and proper understanding of Tribal Nations in the United States. This background will provide context for the analysis and examination of the colonizer language to follow. Next, this Article will examine the issues and consequences of the English language conventions of capitalization or terms referring to Tribal Nations in the United States. Specific issues with the legal style guides known as The AP Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style, and The Bluebook legal citation guide will be discussed for the perpetuation of language, citation, and nomenclature that casts Tribal Nations and peoples in an inferior status. Third, the Article will discuss the rationale for eliminating certain terms and phrases derogatory to Native peoples in the English language. Finally, the decolonization of legal terms, phrases, and citations will be connected to the larger issues of Tribal sovereignty, the Tribal Nations–U.S. relationship, and the self-determination of future generations of Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.