Case Made for Including Indian Law on Oklahoma Bar Exam

Article excerpt

Oklahoma is home to almost 40 federally recognized Indian tribes, but does not require that students be tested on their knowledge of Indian law on the Oklahoma bar exam.

Only three states - New Mexico, Washington and South Dakota - have made Indian law a required bar exam course.

Some have expressed concern that the state's legal education system may need time to gear up for the increased number of courses and professors such a move would require, as well as the influx of students signing up for them.

However, those who work in the field say its importance in the state's history, law and other fields mandates that it be made a bar exam subject.

One state law dean says that tribes' burgeoning commercial activities have increased Indian law's significance in the overall body of law.

Charlotte Nelson, administrative director of the Oklahoma Board of Bar Examiners, said the board considers the issue periodically, but has not yet recommended to the Oklahoma Supreme Court that Indian law be made a required bar exam subject.

"We have talked about it, but right now it is not yet being added," said Nelson.

She said it has been discussed off and on for about five years.

Tulsa attorney Debbie Barnes, who chairs the board, was not immediately available for comment.

Attorney Kirke Kickingbird, who taught Indian law at the Oklahoma City University School of Law from 1988-2000, is one of those who thinks Indian law should be a required course. He also directed the school's Native American Legal Resource Center.

There have been bar exam questions that touched on Indian law issues, one of which Kickingbird remembers from the early 1990s.

"I remember it quite distinctly, because I had an increase in enrollment in my Indian law classes," he said.

Kickingbird said the question showed up following several court cases addressing tobacco-related issues, and as the annual Sovereignty Symposium grew in recognition.

"There was a recognition that this was a hot area, because of all of the litigation," he said. "It kind of peaked in 1995, with the motor fuel litigation and related compacting for both tobacco and motor fuels."

He said recent issues of tobacco taxation have renewed that interest.

Kickingbird said that many Oklahoma business and commerce transactions involve aspects of Indian law, most recently related to the growth in tribal gaming in the state, and ancillary services such as hotels and restaurants.

"Those fundamentals are always important," he said. "I think, when you're trying to do business with tribes, it gives you a better context. Sometimes people get nervous about dealing with tribes, because they know there's something different with respect to the law."

Kickingbird said people may have a vague awareness, for example, that the Bureau of Indian Affairs must approve some matters.

"All of those factors combine to make for a better business climate and, I think, assist non-Indians in doing business with tribes and development in various communities," he said. …