In these examples, when should "Tribe" or "Tribal" be capitalized?

"This rulemaking will preempt State, local, and Tribal requirements but does not propose any regulation that has substantial direct effects on the States, the relationship between the national government and the States, or the distribution of power and responsibilities among the various levels of government."

"The Federal hazmat law contains an express preemption provision [49 U.S.C. 5125 (b)] that preempts State, local, and Indian Tribal requirements on the following subjects:"

My assumption is that because they aren't proper nouns, they shouldn't be capitalized.

  • They are capitalized. That's the point. Basically, out of respect despite the fact that Amerindian peoples have been ruthlessly mistreated. If a law is written a particular way, that is a fact. Not something to be argued about.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 14:48
  • 2
    Unless it's in a title or the first word in a sentence, only capitalize proper nouns. All common nouns should be in lowercase. In that passage, state, local, tribal, states, and federal should all be lowercase. (Only Indian should remain capitalized, since that is a proper noun here.) Although I note the inconsistency between the use of tribal requirements in the first paragraph and Indian tribal requirements in the second paragraph. It's possible in this case that there is a proper noun of Indian Tribal, but it should be used in both paragraphs if that's the case. Commented May 15, 2020 at 14:49
  • According to the GPO style guide state should be capitalized. Commented May 15, 2020 at 14:59
  • Proper adjectives are capitalised also. And GPO style guidelines in this area are as close to Style Czar diktats as it gets. I'd only go against such if I were against it on principle, and I'm all for this one. Commented May 15, 2020 at 15:53

1 Answer 1


It appears (from a comment) that you're asking about the US Government Publishing Office style guidelines.

It appears that according to the 2016 edition of the GPO Style Manual, tribe and tribal should always be capitalized when they refer to federally recognized American Indian tribes.

So it would be: "Many members of the Suquamnish Tribe live on the Port Madison Reservation. The Tribal leaders work on projects that provide cultural, educational, and recreational resources for the community. The Tribe has 890 enrolled members."

But: "The survivors of the shipwreck formed two tribes."

And: "The tribal delegation from Greenland arrived yesterday."

Names of organized bodies


American Indian and Alaska Native federally recognized entities:
Shawnee Tribe, the Tribe; Cherokee Nation, the Nation; Alturas Indian Rancheria, the Rancheria; Cahuilla Band of Indians, the Band; Takotna Village, the Village; Akiak Native Community, the Community

(emphasis added)

4. Capitalization Examples


Tribe; Tribal (federally recognized)

This is somewhat counter-intuitive, both because it's different from many other guidelines and because it doesn't seem to fit a consistent pattern within the GPO guidelines.

For example, we're told to always capitalize Navy, but naval is not capitalized. You'd think that the same rule might apply to Tribe and tribal.

  • 1
    The main source of the OP's being puzzled by this practice is that tribe is not a proper noun, so it may help to note the rule requires that the word be capitalised only when it refers to a Tribe within the United States that is explicitly recognised as a Tribe by the U.S. government. The word would not be capitalised, even within the same document, if used to refer to some tribe somewhere else in the world. This makes Tribe somewhat akin to proper names, unlike tribe which is indeed not a proper name.
    – jsw29
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 16:59
  • @jsw29, thanks for pointing that out. I'll amend my answer.
    – Juhasz
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 17:10
  • If I may - would the same rule apply to "Indian tribe?" With "Indian Tribe" being correct? Commented May 15, 2020 at 17:52
  • 1
    @BrettA, I'm not an expert, I'm just interpreting the document I linked. But from my reading, it would be "Indian Tribe" when you're talking about a federally recognized tribe, and "Indian tribe" when discussing anyone else (such as a made-up tribe, a Canadian First Nation that's not also recognized by the US - e.g. not the Cree who live in both Canada and the US - indigenous peoples of Latin America, or tribes from India)
    – Juhasz
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 18:12

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