How To Identify Sovereign Tribal Nations For Consultation In Your Project Area

What Do I Need to Know?

Section 106 regulations require federal agencies to consider the effects of their proposed activities on cultural resources. If your project will be federally funded or licensed, then your project may require consultation with American Indian Tribes. Identifying sovereign tribal nations who may have an interest in resources located within your project area is a critical part of the process that is explored further below. While there is a government-to-government level consultation, project proponents often become part of the outreach and conversations.

There’s a List

The United States government maintains a list of federally recognized Tribes. Currently, there are 574 American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes that have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. Section 106 regulations require federally recognized Tribes to be considered for consultation. One of the most helpful guides is the Tribal Directory Assessment Tool (TDAT) – an online database published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that contains information about federally-recognized Indian Tribes and their geographic areas of current and ancestral interest. TDAT links Tribes’ areas of interest down to the county level. Users can query the database by street address, county, state, and Tribe. This can be a great tool to start the process, though additional follow up with the Tribes listed and other involved state or federal agencies is recommended to ensure accuracy.

What does sovereignty mean?

American Indian Tribes possess sovereignty, a nationhood status in which inherent powers of self-government are retained. Many Tribes have treaties with the U.S. that provide access to, and protection of places or resources of importance to them. Through these treaties, Indian Tribes often ceded large portions of their homelands to the government. In return, the U.S. promised to protect the rights of Indian Tribes as self-governing nations within their reserved lands (reservations) and their ability to exercise certain retained rights (i.e., hunting, fishing, and gathering) to resources located outside of those reserved lands.

What is the difference between ancestral land and reservation land?

An important distinction is the difference between ancestral land and reservation land. Indian reservations are held in trust by the federal government and reserved for use by Tribes and Native people. There are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the United States managed as federal Indian reservations. This amounts to less than 3% of the total land area in the U.S. that is established for reservations.

Understanding the history of forced removal, displacement, and the ongoing struggle for resources is critical to consultation with American Indian Tribes today.

Through the consultation process, the views of Tribes are listened to, discussed, and considered. The process includes identifying resources, assessing effects, and avoiding, resolving, and or mitigating adverse effects. Types of resources of concern to many Tribes include cultural, archaeological, historic, socio-economic, biological, ecological, and water resources. Where feasible, the goal of consultation is to seek agreement. Although the process is required, no outcomes are guaranteed.


How do I proceed?

Over time, Tribes have become more involved in cultural resource regulations and process. Like all governments, many Tribes have limited staff. Early engagement and frequent follow up through a variety of communication methods are important to confirm a Tribe’s interest. Consultation is not a check-box exercise. Identifying potential challenges early in project planning may allow for a review process that can accommodate tribal needs and foster collaboration.

Best practices

Here are a few things that may or may not apply:

  • Make use of online tools to identify Indian Tribes that may have an interest in the project location and activities
  • Begin engagement early, follow up often, and stay in touch
  • Reach out through different means; some Tribal staff may be better suited to emails, others may prefer phone calls or letters
  • Be flexible with meeting times, schedules, and locations
  • Learn which treaties are in effect in your project area
  • Learn what you can about the histories, issues of particular concern, and governmental structures of the tribes you’re talking with

If you have additional questions or would like to learn more about related regulatory processes, please get in touch.

Anne Ketz

Anne has worked with a broad range of stakeholders, including Native Americans, community planners & leaders, and thought leaders to ensure respect for each community’s heritage within the planning process.

Adam Kaeding

Adam’s experience in archaeology spans North America, Central America, and Asia. Adam has worked closely with Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, monitors, elders, and community members; and led public outreach and education efforts among rural Maya descendant communities as well as in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms.