When I talk to community groups, I usually
tell them Minnesota, Montana, Michigan, North and South Dakota is
Indian country. There are about 34 reservations in these states
and they encompass millions of acres of land with resources like
oil, gas, timber and minerals. They are the fastest growing groups
of people on the Plains with a population of about 200,000 enrolled
Seven years ago when I became involved
with the development of the Northern Plains Indian Law Center at
UND's School of Law, it became clear to me that law school was dead
center and right in the middle Indian country ... a perfect place
for this project.
The center began like a machine with rusty
cogs, slowly and laboriously grinding out a product. Today, the
center is a nationally known institution. It is becoming "the
place" for resources about Indian law, tribal courts, research
(nation-wide) and tribal environmental law (regionally).
Stacy Leeds, assistant professor at the
law school, is the director of the center and one of the driving
forces behind its success and growth. Currently, the center consists
of Tribal Environment Law Project, Native American Law Project,
the Aboriginal Leadership Institute and the Tribal Judicial Training
The Center concept probably began with
the Tribal Judicial Training Institute. It was off the ground and
running while the center was still searching for enough funding.
It was a Bush Foundation grant that jump started this project.
B. J. Jones, the current director is also
a judge and consultant for some of the area tribes. The institute
is currently providing training and technical assistance to 54 tribes
In addition to the Training Institute,
there are other projects: the clinic part of the center is the Native
American Law project. This program allows second and third year
law students to provide legal services for Spirit Lake clients under
the supervision of a practicing attorney. They take cases appointed
to them by tribal judges.
The Tribal Environmental Law project provides
legal and policy assistance to tribal governments developing environmental
programs intended to protect the health and welfare of tribal people,
natural resources and more.
One of the exciting program that they
are currently working on is the Aboriginal Leadership Institute.
The institute has two educational partners which are Harvard and
UND law schools, Leeds told me. The Institute trains aboriginal
people for leadership roles. They will meet at UND in April, she
Leeds smiled when she told me that she
gets a steady stream of questions from lawyers who may work with
a bank or corporation. They are faced with legal questions about
Indian law which are unfamiliar to some of them. One lawyer said
he wished he had taken Indian law classes at UND.
The law school also offers environmental
law, Native American law, Federal Indian law, tribal environmental
law and Indian gaming classes. It is considering adding classes
on Indian law and how it relates to economic development.
At first I couldn't see how the economic
development and Indian law were connected. The focus links the tribal
government and the courts by strengthen tribal courts to carry out
services, Leeds told me. That in turns helps outsiders feel confident
in the tribal judicial system and governments so that businesses
can and will work with tribes.
Several years ago a recommendations was
made to include Indian law questions on the North Dakota state bar
exam to the Supreme Court tribal/state judicial committee. The recommendation
wasn't acted on, but it has resurfaced recently. A lot of states
are considering adding Indian law questions on the exam after New
Mexico, the first state to require Indian law, added a question
to their bar exam.
It seems important for North Dakota to
take that step, too, because much of our state and the surrounding
regions involve Indian reservations and tribal governments so legal
issues can't help but spill into the state courts.
American Indians have a special relationship
with the state and federal governments. Fortunately those relationships
are anchored by treaties and legal agreements ... aspects that should
be understood by those in the legal profession.
It also follows that students, new lawyers,
practicing and firmly entrenched attorneys would benefit from UND's
School of Law Indian Law Center. The center brings to the legal
community a unique aspect of the law found few other places.