Federal, State, and Tribal Governance

Federal, State, and Tribal Governance

Teaching Civics through History


In this unit, students will learn how federalism forms the basis of the relationship between national, state, and tribal governments in the United States.



Image Source: Map showing Indian Reservations in the United States West of the 84th Meridian, published by the US Congress, Washington DC, 1881 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC09679)

Map of the part of the USA in 1881 showing the locations of different Indian Reservations
  • Grades: 9-12

  • Class Time: 1-2 Weeks

Who has governing power in the United States?

In the complex system created by the US Constitution, the individual state governments and the federal government bear responsibility for specific matters. This system of different layers of government handling different responsibilities is known as “federalism.”

Although the Constitution aimed to clearly distinguish between federal and state jurisdictions, the two entities have sometimes had overlapping or even conflicting responsibilities. Interwoven into the federalism debate is how American Indian tribal sovereignty factors into the federalism balance between state and national government powers. Over the centuries, the way these jurisdictions interact has evolved, and the US Supreme Court continues to make rulings that shift responsibilities between state, federal, and tribal governments.


Formal group portrait of the Supreme Court Justices in robes, ca. 1940 (GLC02929)

Formal group portrait of the Supreme Court
justices in robes, ca. 1940 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC02929)

Core Lesson Plans

Unit Supplement

Connecting Historical Lessons to Current Events

The Gilder Lehrman Institute has worked with AllSides.com to pull up current articles* in the news media related to this topic written from different perspectives. Students can use these articles to develop their understanding of how history has shaped current events. Click on “Latest News” to see a range of articles from left, center, and right perspectives.

*The articles shown here update regularly, so if you find articles you are particularly interested in sharing with your students, keep track of the links to the original publications.


Additional Gilder Lehrman Resources