Criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country can be complicated because it is not always clearly defined or understood. Here is an overview of the MMU’s jurisdiction and areas of service, including through partnerships with other agencies.
MMU Service Area
The Missing & Murdered Unit investigates unsolved missing and murdered cases and will be taking over the responsibility of Human Trafficking Cases that occurred in Indian Country near the end of 2023.
For Tribal law enforcement programs that have contracted or compacted its law enforcement program through the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the MMU may also, upon request by the Tribal government, provide federal technical assistance and may be able to investigate cases upon the Tribe’s request. Each request for investigation will be on a “case by case” review, depending on the authority of the jurisdiction.
MMU services may also be available to Tribes that receive law enforcement services from state, county, or city municipalities. This assistance would come at the request of the Tribe and be provided to the department investigating the missing and murdered case that occurred outside of Indian Country.
State / County/ City Law Enforcement
For missing and murdered cases involving an American Indian or Alaska Native victim that occurred outside of Indian Country, the MMU may be able to offer federal technical assistance to the local or state law enforcement authority having jurisdiction over the case, upon request from the Tribe. This is a situation where the agency may need additional resources to assist with a comprehensive investigation.
In some cases, the MMU may be able to assist with investigations upon receipt of an official request. This type of assistance is on a “case by case” basis.
Public Law 83-280
Public Law 83-280 (commonly referred to as Public Law 280 or P.L. 280) was a transfer of legal authority (jurisdiction) from the federal government to state governments, which granted the states extensive criminal and civil jurisdiction over Tribal lands. This action significantly changed the division of legal authority among Tribal, federal, and state governments.
P.L. 280 also permitted the other states to acquire jurisdiction at their option. Consequently, Tribes rely on state law enforcement entities to investigate and prosecute most crimes that occur on Indian Country lands within the state’s jurisdiction.
State or Territory of
Where P.L. 280 applies
All Indian Country within the State, except that on Annette Islands, the Metlakatla Indian community may exercise jurisdiction over offenses committed by Indians in the same way such jurisdiction may be exercised by Indian tribes in Indian Country over which State jurisdiction has not been extended.
All Indian Country within the state.
All Indian Country within the state, except the Red Lake Reservation.
All Indian Country within the state
All Indian Country within the state, except the Warm Springs Reservation.
All Indian Country within the state.
More information about the law is found on the National Institute of Justice web page “Tribal Crime and Justice: P.L. 280 web site.
For individuals looking for information about cases residing in a P.L.280 state, those cases are typically listed on the state’s web site.
Defining Indian Country
Indian Country is a term used to describe lands held by the federal government in trust for Indian Tribes that exist outside of formal reservations and are informal reservations. It is defined in federal law as:
- all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and including rights-of-way running through the reservation.
- all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a state; and
- all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.
Components that Make up the Legal Definition of Indian Country
Indian Reservation land is located within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation is Indian Country and includes rights-of-way for such things as highways, railroads, power lines and pipelines that run through a reservation. Ownership of these lands may vary. For example, reservation lands may:
- be held by the U.S. Government in trust for an Indian Tribe;
- be owned outright by a Tribe;
- be privately owned (by a nonmember of the relevant Tribe); or
- have other ownership.
Dependent Indian communities are a category of Indian Country that are not Indian reservations or individual Indian allotments, but it satisfies two basic criteria. First, they must have been set aside by the U.S. Government for the use of Indians as Indian land. Second, they must be under federal superintendence – that is, the federal government must exercise a degree of control or oversight of these lands for Indian purposes.
Indian allotments are parcels of land held in trust by the United States for individual Indians or held by Indians and otherwise subject to a restriction on alienation. That is, there would be a restriction on the Indian owner’s ability to sell or transfer the allotment to another party. Allotments may exist within an Indian reservation but may also be located outside of any reservation.
Questions and answers about Indian country status
A Tribe has a formal Indian reservation (for example, a reservation established pursuant to a treaty, federal statute, or Executive Order). The U.S. Government also holds additional land in trust for the tribe outside of the exterior boundaries of the formal reservation. Is the additional trust land Indian Country?
Yes, even though the additional trust land has not formally been designated as an Indian reservation, it is an informal reservation and is Indian Country under 18 U.S.C. § 1151(a).
I own private property within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation. Is my land Indian Country?
Yes, all lands within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation, including private property and rights-of-way, are reservation land and, thus, Indian Country.
Are fee-owned lands – sometimes also referred to as deeded lands – within the exterior boundaries of Indian reservations included in the Indian Country definition?
Yes. It is not uncommon for some Indian reservation lands to be owned in fee (for example, in accordance with a deed), including by nonmembers of the relevant Indian Tribe. As long as the land is within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation, it is reservation land and, thus, Indian Country, regardless of the fact that someone holds a deed of ownership to the land.
Are Alaska Native Villages Indian Country?
Generally speaking, land located in Alaska would not qualify as Indian Country based solely on its association with, or ownership by, an Alaska Native Village.
Much of the current Native landholding in Alaska was established through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which extinguished the prior reservation status of most Native lands. Because Alaska Native Village lands also do not qualify as dependent Indian communities, they are generally not Indian Country.
Is there any Indian Country in Alaska?
Yes, currently there is one Indian reservation located in Alaska (the Annette Islands Reserve), and there are individual Indian allotments that are Indian Country.
A Tribe has purchased non-Indian Country land located outside of its reservation. Is this land now Indian Country?
Not necessarily. Land bought by an Indian Tribe does not generally acquire Indian Country status by virtue of Tribal ownership alone. Tribes may own non-Indian Country land in much the same way as other entities may own such land. Tribes may be able to convert such land into Indian Country.
For instance, a Tribe can request that the U.S. Government take the land into trust for the benefit of the Tribe. Such trust status would qualify the land as an informal Indian reservation and, thus, Indian Country.
There may also be other mechanisms through which Tribes are authorized to purchase land and have it acquired Indian Country status. Generally speaking; however, Tribal ownership of land that does not otherwise qualify as Indian Country would not, by itself, convert the land into Indian Country.