Ada Deer was born into poverty on the Menominee Indian Reservation in 1935. Her family’s log cabin had no running water or electricity, and her father, who worked at a sawmill, struggled to provide for his wife and five children. Despite such obstacles, Deer excelled in school and went on to college, where she eventually became the first member of the Menominee Nation to graduate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She later earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and in 1971 enrolled in a special American Indian law program at the University of New Mexico, where she developed an understanding of the legal status of Native nations. For Ada Deer, such knowledge wasn’t a means to improve her economic position, but rather a weapon that could be leveraged for the good of her people. And back home her people faced an increasingly grim future.
Years earlier, following the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 108, the federal government terminated its trust responsibilities to the Menominee Nation. The tribe formed a corporation to harvest the timber that was so abundant on their lands, but the venture only benefited an elite few and failed to meet the people’s education, housing, and health care needs. To make matters worse, the corporation began selling off tribal land to increase its revenue, leaving the Menominee people to slip deeper into poverty and destitution.
Armed with her education, knowledge of the law, and sense of duty, Ada Deer returned home and joined fellow tribal members in a grassroots organization known as Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS). They launched a multi-faceted effort to bring attention to the ill-effects of termination, secure tribal lands, and elect lawmakers who would better represent the Menominee people. They also enlisted the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), a nonprofit organization that offered legal representation and assistance to American Indians, to draft a bill to reverse the policy of termination and fully restore the Menominee Nation as a federally recognized tribe.
Quite simply, Indian Country needs more Indian lawyers.
As NARF worked out the details of the bill, Deer and her colleagues advocated and lobbied relentlessly. Through sheer determination, they built up support for their cause in both Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. Before long, NARF’s bill had the necessary backing on Capitol Hill and on December 22, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Menominee Restoration Act into law. Shortly thereafter, Ada Deer met with the Secretary of the Interior to finalize the act and officially transfer the governance of tribal lands back to the sovereign Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, heralding one of the great American Indian victories of the 20th century.
The story of Menominee termination and restoration is one of tragedy, perseverance, and ultimately redemption. But it also starkly highlights how legal channels can be harnessed to overturn past wrongs and procure justice. Indeed, American Indian law stands as the bedrock for securing tribal lands and safeguarding Native nations’ sovereignty, self-determination, and treaty rights. However, hitherto Indian law programs and even the teaching of Indian law has remained the domain of non-Native colleges, universities, and law schools. In this era of self-determination, does Indian law have a place at tribal colleges and universities?
In this issue of Tribal College Journal, four Native attorneys and educators discuss how and why tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) should prepare the next generation of legal warriors. Matthew L.M. Fletcher (Ottawa/Chippewa), Stephen Wall (Ojibwe), Wynema Morris (Omaha), and Christopher M. Harrington (Comanche) agree that TCUs can and should play a critical role not just in producing Indian lawyers, but in creating a legally astute tribal citizenry. At the Institute of American Indian Arts, Nebraska Indian Community College, and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (where Wall, Morris, and Harrington each teach, respectively) courses that grapple with Indian law are woven into liberal arts programming. Students gain a broad understanding of how the law so pervasively affects Native people— who are, in the words of Stephen Wall, “the most legislated people in the United States.”
While producing knowledgeable and empowered students is of great importance, there are also pressing reasons for teaching Indian law and, more specifically, devising lay advocate or paralegal programs. In this issue’s Voices column, attorney Chris Vigil emphasizes the vital need for such programs, illuminating how in many tribal courts Native defendants rarely have access to lay advocates and attorneys in civil and criminal proceedings. The result, Vigil states, is nothing short of a human rights crisis.
Fortunately, some TCUs such as Sitting Bull College (SBC) have taken steps to remedy the situation. In this edition’s Talking Circle, W.L. Shelley, director of the criminal justice department at SBC, discusses the structure of the college’s associate of applied science paralegal program. Shelley illustrates how SBC is producing a crop of lay advocates versed in both U.S. law and Standing Rock tribal code. The program offers, in Shelley’s words, “grassroots-level legal expertise” for both Standing Rock citizens and members of other tribal nations.
As some TCU leaders have advocated, a tribal college consortium or American Indian university may one day host a law school. The reasons for and utility of such an endeavor resonate throughout this issue. Quite simply, Indian Country needs more Indian lawyers. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), read Richard Peterson’s profile of Carrie Billy (Diné). A graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center, Billy has made it her life’s work to advocate for all Native peoples. The state of the tribal college movement today underscores her efficacy.
Gone are the days of termination, but ahead lies an uncertain horizon that will undoubtedly bring more storms—some of which may again threaten the very survival of Native nations. TCUs today can play a vital role in preparing the guardians who will confront whatever challenges lie ahead and help protect the future for generations to come.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is the managing editor of Tribal College Journal.
Fixico, D.L. (1986). Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Wilkinson, C. (2005). Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. New York: W.W. Norton.