American Indian Law

Civil Litigation
White Collar & Investigations
Regulatory & Compliance

Zuckerman Spaeder LLP has been involved for decades in representing the interests of Native American tribes in negotiations with state and local governments, in government-to-government relationships with federal agencies, and in litigation in state and federal courts. Our firm has been involved in cutting-edge litigation involving tribal sovereignty, tribal freedom from state taxation and regulation, tribal gaming rights, and tribal land rights.

We understand tribes’ compelling need to protect their tribal sovereignty and to express it in ways that assure political, social and economic success and independence. We understand that Native American tribes face persistent challenges from both governmental and private actors in all of these areas. Zuckerman Spaeder is able to develop negotiation and other strategies to resolve disputes with tribal adversaries without litigation—where that is possible—and is able to vigorously pursue intensive, high-stakes litigation where other resolutions are not possible. We have wide-ranging experience in such litigation at all levels in the state and federal courts.

Zuckerman Spaeder’s work in this area has been recognized in a number of national and local outlets. The firm is nationally ranked in the field of Native American Law by U.S. News & World Report in its “Best Law Firms” list, and the practice leader has been recognized in The Best Lawyers in America and Super Lawyers in the same category.

Zuckerman Spaeder has litigated novel and important Indian law cases in federal and state courts. Nearly all of our litigation has involved in some significant respect a cutting-edge question regarding tribal sovereignty or tribal sovereign immunity. Involvement in these cases has required Zuckerman Spaeder to work closely with historical experts and federal administrative agencies to master more than 200 years of federal Indian law, tribal history, and tribal relations with state and federal governments. We have sued on behalf of a Native American tribe as plaintiff to recover damages for the illegal acquisition of its lands by a state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to protect the tribe’s aboriginal and federal treaty rights, to prevent trespasses on tribal lands, to prevent state taxation of lands and of tobacco products, and in other respects to protect tribal sovereignty.

We also have defended a tribe against lawsuits by private actors suing for damages or to undo governmental decisions that benefitted the tribe, as well as by state and local governments. The cases have included defense of a tribe against lawsuits brought by others—by private actors suing for money damages or to set aside a state or federal action that had been taken for the tribe’s benefit, and by state and local governments suing to enforce tax foreclosures or evictions, invalidate a tribal gaming compact, or to disestablish the tribe’s reservation.


  • Zuckerman Spaeder has sued to assert tribal exemption from real property taxation, invoking state statutory tax exemptions for reservation land held by a Native American tribe.
  • We sued state and local governments on behalf of a tribe in several cases to stop efforts to tax tribal land and to stop tax foreclosures, litigating numerous federal Indian law issues, including the contours and reach of tribal sovereign immunity principles.
  • We are defending a tribe against suits filed by local governments and private citizens to set aside a landmark trust decision of the U.S. Department of the Interior restoring tribal sovereignty to thousands of acres of tribal reservation land.
  • We sued state and local governments on behalf of a tribe to establish that its reservation had not been disestablished as the result of illegal state acquisition of tribal land two centuries before, and defended against counterclaims of state and local governments in other cases seeking a declaration of reservation disestablishment.
  • We sued a state and state officials with respect to state taxation of tobacco sold by a Native American tribe.
  • We defended against a lawsuit claiming that a tribe’s gaming compact was invalid under state law, and against subsequent claims that it is invalid under federal law.
  • We defended a tribe against a state’s efforts to rescind or withdraw from its approval of machine gaming under its gaming compact.
  • We defended a tribe against suits by a tribal member and by a nonmember seeking federal court orders closing a tribal casino.
  • We defended a tribe against lawsuits challenging the legitimacy and authority of tribal leadership, including challenging related U.S. Department of the Interior decisions. We have defended against other challenges to federal recognition of the tribe itself, including whether federal recognition existed as to the tribe (and whether the tribe itself existed) at all times since the formation of the United States.
  • We participated in state court litigation asserting the legitimacy of tribal criminal prosecutions and the requirement that states recognize them when applying double jeopardy rules in subsequent state court prosecutions.
  • We participated in state court litigation concerning the tribal right to serve liquor at its facilities or to permit its patrons to consume liquor.
  • On behalf of a tribe, we sued for damages from tribal members and nonmembers who, in acts of political violence and trespass, damaged tribal property and a tribal business.
  • We defended a tribe against suits for tort damages by casino patrons and others, including a suit filed by the legendary boxer Joe Frazier.
  • We defended a tribe against a tribal member’s challenge in federal court to a tribal housing ordinance, and in a different case against a tribal member’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus under the Indian Civil Rights Act.
  • We defended a tribe against large legal fee claims by its former law firm.
  • We defended against one tribe’s claim under federal law to land held by another tribe, and against intervention by that other tribe in federal litigation in which our tribal client was a party.
  • We represented a Native American tribe in connection with a federal criminal prosecution of tribal members and outsiders who committed acts of violence against the tribe and stole tribal assets.

Zuckerman Spaeder counsels tribal leadership on a range of complicated issues facing tribes today. When it is possible, tribal positions and strategy should be formulated before negotiation or litigation occurs. Early counseling regarding matters affecting internal governance and dealing with federal, state, and local governance bolsters the tribal position and often heads off expensive and risky litigation. Where litigation is unavoidable, however, pre-litigation planning maximizes the chances of a good outcome.

Zuckerman Spaeder has advised tribal leadership regarding the broad array of gaming, taxation, sovereignty, and other issues that Native American tribes confront. We have assisted Native American tribes with navigating their often complicated relationships with internal tribal groups, with the federal government, and with state and local governments.


  • Internal tribal relationships involving law enforcement and policing, tribal leadership, tribal housing, tribal members, and tribal businesses (including employment issues).
  • Relationships with the federal government involving protection and acquisition of tribal land (including trust land), tribal recognition, recognition of trial leadership, tribal gaming compacting process and tribal gaming, law enforcement and policing, tribal land claims, the protected status of tribal land (including federal reservation land), NAGPA issues, and environmental matters.
  • Relationships with state and local governments involving taxation, land use, business regulation and inspection, tobacco and petroleum sales, alcohol, and law enforcement and policing.

Zuckerman Spaeder represents Native American tribes in connection with criminal investigations and prosecutions. Prior matters have involved tribal interests in criminal matters in which the tribe was the victim supporting the prosecution, and in other matters in which the tribe supported tribal members who were under investigation or who had been criminally charged.


  • The firm represented a Native American tribe in connection with a federal criminal prosecution of tribal members and outsiders who committed acts of violence against the tribe and stole tribal assets.
  • The firm represented a tribe when an official was charged in state court with a criminal zoning violation arising out of the tribe’s use of its property. The prosecutor dismissed the charges.
  • The firm represented a tribe in connection with a state prosecution of a tribal official. The state court dismissed the prosecution on double jeopardy grounds, in light of a previous criminal resolution by a tribal court.
  • We represented a tribe in connection with a federal criminal investigation of a former tribal leader concerning use of tribal and other assets.

Native American tribes must deal frequently with the federal government and with state and local governments. Federal agency decisions regarding recognition of tribes, recognition of tribal governments, gaming, tribal housing, policing, and many other matters can have significant effects on tribes. In some instances, whether a federal law even applies to tribes or tribal members is a difficult question, and thorny disputes may exist. Other regulation efforts that are often impermissible, such as many state efforts to control uses of lands or businesses, require advocacy at the administrative level to stop the regulatory efforts, or in some cases to find a negotiated solution. With both federal and state regulators, there are times when advocacy and negotiation at the administrative level do not resolve the issues, and litigation is required. Zuckerman Spaeder handles regulatory and compliance matters at all these levels, including litigation.


  • Represented a tribe before the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) with respect to approval of tribal gaming ordinances, regulation of tribal gaming, and the legality of tribal gaming after a state court decided that the governor lacked authority to sign a compact that subsequently was approved by the Secretary of the Interior.
  • Represented a tribe in numerous matters before the U.S. Department of the Interior with respect to issues concerning tribal recognition; the recognition of tribal governments; the protected status of tribal lands; the approval and validity of a tribal gaming compact, including the absence of federal power to reconsider approval of a compact; applications for transfer of thousands of acres of land into trust under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) and other statutes, including those with respect to excess federal lands held by military departments; the rights and powers of tribal police; the protection of tribal interests from impermissible state and local interference; and the protection of tribal sovereignty.
  • Represented a tribe in federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) matters involving competing tribal claims to objects to be repatriated by a major museum.
  • Represented a tribe before the U.S. Department of Justice in matters concerning tribal sovereignty, land claims, taxation, federal treaty protection, and other matters in which the federal government could take a formal position with respect to tribal interests that were in litigation.
  • Represented a tribe before other agencies, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with respect to environmental and other issues.
  • Represented a tribe before state and local governments and agencies with respect to tax and regulatory efforts that compromise tribal rights to self-government in matters concerning land, taxation, business, and tribal members; with respect to policing and law enforcement issues; and with respect to land use and business regulation issues.