In the 1970s, when Kevin Gover first became involved in Indian law, it was considered an “archaic, weird subject,” he said.
Today, Indian law is an exploding field, fueled by economic development on reservations across the country and the reassertion of long-dormant tribal rights.
The result: a dire need for lawyers conversant in tribal law and growing enrollments in Indian law programs like the one at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, where Gover, a member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, teaches.
There are more than 560 federally recognized tribes across the country, 21 of them in Arizona. More than 250,000 Native Americans live in Arizona, and about a quarter of the state’s land is held by tribes.
But because Indian law is an emerging discipline, only about 3,000 lawyers nationwide practice in the field. Less than 1 percent of all lawyers are Native American.
The increasing need for Indian law practitioners is fed by several factors: tribal economic development, led by gaming; increased assertion of tribal sovereignty in dealings with states and surrounding communities; and the complexity of tribal law and jurisdiction.
As sovereign nations, tribes set, enforce and adjudicate their own laws, with some exceptions. Major crimes like murder are handled by federal authorities, and tribes are not allowed to arrest or prosecute non-Natives.
Contracts and other business dealings, however, fall squarely in the tribe’s domain, which sometimes worries companies doing business on reservations. In some cases, to quell those concerns, tribes have waived their sovereignty, agreeing to go to state courts if conflicts arise.
As financial, political and social interactions increase, so does the need for lawyers who understand tribal law. Companies dealing with tribes need them to navigate contracts and other dealings, and tribes need them for business deals, land development plans and management of economic and environmental resources.
The need for lawyers who understand Indian law is so acute that Indian law recently was added to the New Mexico bar exam and will be added to Washington’s this summer.
The Indian law program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, established in 1988, is one of the nation’s largest and most respected programs.
It enrolls between 30 and 40 students each year representing tribes from the United States, Mexico, Canada and South America.
Its alumni are employed at private firms and non-profits to tribal communities, federal agencies, state offices and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Some serve as judges in superior and tribal courts.
Anthony Hill, an associate judge for the Gila River Indian Community, is finishing his degree at the ASU College of Law. A member of the Gila River Indian Community, he was elected to a three-year term as a tribal judge in November 2005 and took office in January 2006.
Hill said he considered seeking a career outside his tribe but ultimately returned to his community.
“They [the tribe] don’t tell you to come back after school,” Hill said. “They don’t say, 'I’m going to pay for your education; you need to come back and work for us,’ but you feel that obligation anyway.”
Ray Campbell, a first-year law student at ASU and a member of the Gila River Indian Community, has taken a path similar to Hill’s.
He would like to work on behalf of his tribe or another tribe and is pursuing a law degree with help from the tribe and a scholarship through ASU.
Campbell said he is attracted to Indian law because of the wide array of specializations it covers: environmental law, business law, federal law and corporate law, among others.
Before choosing ASU, Campbell considered other colleges with strong Indian law programs, including the University of Oklahoma, the University of Arizona and the University of Washington. Ultimately, he chose ASU because of its recruitment efforts.
“If they were willing to invest in me, I was willing to invest in the school,” he said.
Kate Rosier, director of the college’s Indian Legal Program who recruits students like Campbell, arranged for him to meet alumni and discuss their experiences.
New students also are paired with second- or third-year students in a mentoring relationship.
Rosier said many of the students plan to return to their tribes to serve their communities because “they see a lot of injustice and want to make a positive change.”
The program also teaches practicing attorneys and the public about Indian legal issues through conferences such as Indian Law 101 and Indian Law 202, which detail different aspects of Indian law, including Indian gaming and Indian health policy.
Experts agree that the field of Indian law will continue to grow.
Marnie Hodahkwen, a graduate of the ASU College of Law and tribal policy adviser for Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, predicts that the legislative branch, rather than the judicial branch, may be the arena in which Indian law will prosper most.
Hodahkwen said tribes have not always fared well in the court systems and will fight many of their battles in Congress, seeking specific legislation to clarify their conflicts.
Attorney John Weldon of the law firm Salmon, Lewis & Weldon, who has practiced Indian law for more than 20 years, represents the Salt River Project in the Gila River and Little Colorado general stream adjudications.
“As you find more and more interactions between reservations and non-Indian populations, sovereign immunity is going to continue to be an area where there’s more and more development,” he said.