The Chronicle on Indian Law Centers at Law Schools

Here is an excerpt from “American Indian Law: A Surge of Interest on Campus,” from the Sept. 26, 2008 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (article):

Growing up on a Navajo reservation near Gallup, N.M., Jordan Hale never dreamed he would one day be standing in front of a courtroom recommending whether a defendant should be released on bond, or working with a prosecutor to draft a criminal complaint.

Becoming a lawyer was the farthest thing from the mind of the high-school runner whose home, at the end of a dirt road, had no running water or telephone.


Tribes have sovereignty rights that are spelled out in treaties with the United States, so their laws don’t always align with the government’s. That is why, for instance, Indian tribes can open casinos that would not be permitted on nontribal land.

“More and more law schools are recognizing the importance of including Indian law in the curriculum because their graduates are encountering questions that require some knowledge of Indian law and sovereignty,” says Wenona T. Singel, an assistant professor of law at Michigan State University. Like many Indian law professors, Ms. Singel brings practical experience to the classroom. In addition to helping lead her law school’s Indian-law program, she serves as chief justice of her tribe, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

She says about 20 law schools nationwide report having Indian-law programs, while other experts say the number of full-fledged programs is about 12. Among the other law schools active in Indian law are those at Harvard University, Lewis and Clark College, and the Universities of Colorado, New Mexico, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Learning the basics of tribal law is more than an academic exercise for many law students.

A few states, including New Mexico, South Dakota, and Washington, have Indian-law topics on their bar exam that students must pass to practice law. Others, including Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, and Oklahoma, are considering adding such a requirement.