Idaho (AP) Angelique EagleWoman remembers the moment when
she decided she wanted to devote her life to law.
was 8 and watching the television in her familys living room
in 1978 when news broke that her uncle, a black man who had married
into a Native American family and was beaten by five deputies when
he went pay a speeding ticket, was awarded $75,000 in punitive damages.
knew I wanted to make my life about justice, said EagleWoman,
who grew up in Kansas and lived on a reservation in South Dakota.
30 years later, EagleWoman has built a program focusing on Native
American law, an area of the legal profession that experts say is
often misunderstood and sometimes ignored.
are over 35 states that have sovereign, independent tribal nations
within their boundaries, if youre practicing in any one of
those states you have to understand the basics of Indian law,
said Heather Dawn Thompson, president of the National Native American
a little bit crazy, Thompson said. Alaska has over 200
tribes and its not on their bar exam.
also not on the exam in California, where there are more than 100
tribes, and also not on the one in Oklahoma, where there are more
than 40, said Thompson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux.
the 1970s, only a handful of lawyers who specialize in Native American
law have been available to help tribal members navigate through
had all sorts of attorneys that had no idea what they were talking
about, she said.
said attorneys particularly those in states with tribes
must understand there are three systems of practice: state, federal
and tribal law. Each has three distinct set of rules, each has three
distinct court systems.
example, if a mother dies and her child is underage, the custody
would most likely go to the father under state legal proceedings
and the traditional western notions of family structure.
under tribal law, the family structure is often different. In some
tribes, a biological mothers sister could be granted custody
because the women share the same rights and responsibilities.
federal Indian Child Welfare Act makes sure tribal law is respected
in this area of legal proceedings.
many attorneys do not know that law exists and they break it every
day, Thompson said. Thats a concept thats
hard for a lot of attorneys who practice family law to wrap their
head around and its one of the reasons why the program at
the University of Idaho is so important.
the university, a campus built on the aboriginal homeland of the
Nez Perce Tribe, the law school last year hired EagleWoman, who
is from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation
in South Dakota, commonly called Sioux.
only a handful of Native American law programs available nationwide,
only three states include this area of the legal profession on the
list of subjects that can be tested on the bar exam. Those states
are Washington, New Mexico and South Dakota, EagleWoman said.
studied political science at Stanford University, earned a law degree
at the University of North Dakota and a masters in law at the University
of Tulsa in Oklahoma. She has cross-listed her courses at the University
of Idaho so students outside the law school can enroll.
year, she taught 17 law students and two others studying American
Indian studies. This fall, shell have 32 law students and
with building the law emphasis curriculum, EagleWoman has also bolstered
efforts to recruit more Native American students, said UI College
of Law Dean Don Burnett. Shes a tremendous asset,
hopes one day to have her program grow into a full-fledged degree.
many attorneys had no basis in Native American law and I thought
that was a travesty, she said.