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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 20, 2002 - Issue 59


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Indian Law Center Fills Vital Niche

by Dorreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald

Northern Plains Indian Law Center logo

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 members.

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 Institute.

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 nationwide.

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 said.

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.

Yellow Bird writes columns on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Reach her at (701) 780-1228 or (800) 477-6572 ext. 228 or


Northern Plains Indian Law Center
The School of Law, in consultation with area tribes and Indian leaders, has established the Northern Plains Indian Law Center. The Center's purposes are to assist tribal governments in addressing legal issues affecting tribal lands and members, and to promote diversity within the legal profession by increasing recruitment and retention of American Indian law students.

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