Broadening the Legal Landscape: More Law Schools Are Establishing and Expanding Native American Law Course Offerings, Which Are Increasingly Being Regarded as a Fundamental Component of a Well-Rounded Law Education

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For Brenda Christie, the study of Native American law has proven to be not just a way to better understand her Cherokee heritage, but a necessary prerequisite to her current position as a legal services senior staff attorney for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma.

"Naturally I needed the training that you can get from just about any law school," says Christie, "but the particular program I took also gave me a chance to understand the legal procedures of both the Cherokee and Creek nations." At the conclusion of that program, Christie received a Native American law certificate.

Offered by the University of Tulsa College of Law, the Native American Law Certificate program, launched in 1990, reflects the school's mission of trying to better serve American Indians and Alaska Natives in Oklahoma who, according to the 2006 U.S. Census estimates, make up 6.8 percent of the state's population. This number is significantly larger than the 1 percent they represent nationally.

"We are geographically located within the area of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation," notes Melissa Tatum, associate professor of law and co-director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Tulsa. The law center opened in 2000 and is designed to build on the success of the school's Native American Law Certificate program.

"There are also almost 40 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, and we are within an easy drive of at least half of them," Tatum adds.

The University of Tulsa's program also reflects a larger movement among law schools across the country to both establish as well as expand Native American law course offerings that are increasingly being regarded as a fundamental component of a well-rounded law education.

"There is a greater awareness today in general of the importance of studying both Indian law as well as tribal law," says Heather Dawn Thompson, president of the National Native American Bar Association and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. "And law schools across the country are gradually but surely responding to that with a variety of different programs."

Those programs are mostly designed to study how tribal governments, of which there are more than 560 in the United States that are officially recognized by the federal government, interact with both federal and state governments. Much less common has been the study of the internal legal system of the individual tribes.

"But this should be an important area of study because every individual tribe also has its own court system, constitution and ordinances," says Robert Anderson, associate professor of law and the director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law.

"Some tribes even have their own bar exams just like the states do, and in some cases there may also be differing federal laws that apply to different tribes and states," continues Anderson, who is also a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in Minnesota.

"In New Mexico, for example, there are Pueblos with origins in some of the Spanish laws," adds Anderson, "which means that laws concerning something like water rights may be a little bit different there than they would be for tribes in the state of Washington."

For students who have studied and taken part in the inner legal workings of a given tribe, the experience is usually invaluable. Christie, for example, as part of her externship at the University of Tulsa, worked on a codification project for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She has also served as a court liaison for the Cherokee Nation. Viewing the practices of such tribal courts up close, Christie came to the conclusion that "the tribal courts are better organized than the state courts. They also embrace a more holistic application when it comes to creating better families."

Christie continues: "I have worked in many juvenile court settings and have seen many instances in the non-tribal court setting of parents being separated from their children for one reason or another. …