Skip to content

Native American Law

Sovereignty is not just about independence – it is about effective self-governance

As providers of legal services to American Indian tribes, Varnum attorneys recognize that the dramatic rise in Indian economic development has complicated the governance of tribes. Increased interactions with non-tribal parties have brought about a new array of business dealings and commercial litigation matters unique to tribal entities. Dealing successfully with these issues requires knowledge beyond standard business negotiations, common commercial laws or customary civil procedures. It requires legal counsel that understands the history and customs of the individuals involved.

Business and Development

Many tribes are working to create and grow sustainable economies in Indian Country that provide jobs and economic activity for their people. We welcome the opportunity to assist with the following legal services:

  • Acquisitions of existing businesses
  • Development agreements with business partners
  • New Markets Tax Credit financing, creation of Community Development Entities, setup of investment infrastructure and guidance on program compliance
  • Business incubators, startups and development for tribes and tribal members
  • Gaming matters, including request for proposals and selection of gaming partners, joint venture, co-development and management agreements with gaming partners, National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) approvals and matters, state compacts, contractor and vendor arrangements, local revenue-sharing arrangements, and casino-financing agreements and arrangements, including private placements, bond financings and public offerings
  • Joint ventures with non-Indian business partners and related Minority Business Enterprise planning
  • Mining and mineral development and excavation in Indian Country
  • Oil and gas exploration, development and distribution in Indian Country
  • Real estate issues in Indian Country
  • Risk analysis and management
  • Lobbying and public relations at the local, state and federal levels


Labor and employment law in Indian Country is increasingly complex, with economic development generating more job opportunities. We routinely assist tribal employers with the following:

  • Human resources planning, advice and management
  • Labor and employment issues in Indian Country
  • Grievance policies and procedures
  • Labor and employment rights and worker protection issues
  • Employee benefits

Families and Human Right

Varnum is especially proud of its experience and qualifications to meet the needs of the individual members of federally recognized tribes. We believe that no other firm has developed and offers similar experience and ability in meeting the needs of tribal members, not just the needs of tribal organizations, including:

  • Estate planning, family law and asset protection representation with consideration for per capita payments, enrollment issues, Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues, tribal law, sovereignty, and other American Indian issues
  • Family law counseling and advice, including adoption, child custody, child abuse/neglect allegations, divorce, guardianship and similar issues, with special consideration for ICWA issues, cultural preservation, enrollment issues, and tribal law, jurisdiction, traditions and sovereignty
  • Representation of individuals in tribal grievance proceedings
  • Representation of individuals in tribal courts
  • ICWA matters
  • Prosecution of anti-Indian discrimination claims

Financing and Taxation

We assist with a variety of financing matters and provide counsel on tax management issues. Services include:

  • Bond financing for tribal entities, agencies and instrumentalities
  • Advice regarding Bureau of Indian Affairs loan programs and other federal and state grant and incentive programs
  • Leasing and financing issues in Indian Country
  • American Indian bank organization, financing and operations
  • Tax law matters related to jurisdiction and sovereignty and state and local tax negotiations


Varnum counsels tribal entities and organizations in the many important areas related to housing. We are experienced and prepared to assist your tribal housing entity in the following areas:

  • General counsel to tribal housing agencies and instrumentalities
  • Cross-deputization and cooperative law enforcement agreements between tribal housing authorities and local, state and federal agencies
  • Endangered Species Act application and interpretation for housing developments in Indian Country
  • Environmental assessments and environmental issues for tribal housing projects
  • Alternative dispute resolution within tribal housing structures and instrumentalities and with outside resolution services
  • General housing policies and procedures
  • HUD financing and program issues, including maximizing program funds, preparing for and responding to audits, and defending against funding freezes and other disciplinary actions
  • Land to trust applications
  • Litigation and resolution of housing, zoning, tax, regulatory authority and other issues related to housing development and management
  • Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act programs, implementation, interpretation and issues
  • Tax law matters related to housing and land development

Land, Environment and Resources

Varnum counsels American Indian bands and other sovereign entities with respect to acquisition, management and development of land and resources, and we provide guidance on related environmental and regulatory issues, including:

  • Acquisition, development, recovery and remediation of sites with archaeological, historical and cultural issues
  • Endangered Species Act application and interpretation in Indian Country
  • Environmental assessments and environmental issues in Indian Country
  • Mining and minerals exploration, extraction and management
  • Oil and gas exploration, development and distribution
  • Property law and property tax matters
  • Establishing and enforcing repatriation rights
  • Establishing and enforcing treaty rights
  • Protecting and developing water resources and riparian rights


We have represented tribes in a variety of litigation matters, including:

  • Defense of sovereignty and other issues related to indigenous integrity and primacy
  • Jurisdiction
  • Zoning
  • Regulatory authority

Organization and Governance

Varnum offers legal representation and services related to fundamental tribal organization and governance issues, such as:

  • Tribal constitutions, bylaws, ordinances, regulations and policies
  • Tribal courts structure, procedures and implementation
  • General counsel to tribal agencies and instrumentalities governing housing, education, health services, environmental matters, substance abuse, strategic planning, land development and community development

Tribal Rights

We counsel clients on advancing and protecting tribal legal rights. Services include:

  • Protection of tribal trademarks, logos, designs, copyrights and other intellectual property
  • Cross-deputization and cooperative law enforcement agreements between tribes and local, state and federal agencies
  • Establishing and enforcing treaty rights
  • Development and protection of water resources and riparian rights
  • Local cooperation agreements and other government-to-government agreements between tribes and local governments regarding taxation, zoning, utilities, public services and similar matters

“We rely on Varnum for nearly everything we do. Their representation is always accurate and thorough.”

Client, US News – Best Lawyers® Best Law Firms

Sign up to be the first to access our leading legal insights.

The link you have selected will redirect you to a third-party website located on another server. We are offering the link for your convenience. Varnum has no responsibility for any external websites and makes no express or implied warranties about any external websites.

Please be aware that contacting us via e-mail does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and the firm. Do not send confidential information to the firm until you have spoken with one of our attorneys and receive authorization to send such materials.