Law Libraries Fostering Research & Learning on American Indian Law

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time dedicated to celebrating the rich and diverse culture, history, and contributions of Native people.  Each year, the UW–Madison campus cultivates a diverse portfolio of events in recognition of this important heritage month.  One of these events, organized by the UW Law School and the Indigenous Law Students Association (ILSA), was a flag ceremony in which thirteen Native Nations with ancestral ties to Wisconsin presented their flags.  I feel privileged that I was able to attend this moving event, which featured tribal veterans, a drum group, and remarks from tribal leaders.

I also recently watched a recording of a webinar on Integrating Content on American Indian Law and Indigenous Identities into legal education from speakers Matthew Fletcher, Monte Mills, and Rebecca Plevel.  The program was part of the excellent Integrating Doctrine and Diversity series from Roger Williams School of Law.  There were a couple of key takeaways for me:

  • Realize that tribal law is already a fundamental part of American law.  Don’t think of it as “niche” content to incorporate into your course.
  • If you’re not an expert on federal Indian or tribal law, acknowledge that.  It’s ok to be vulnerable.
  • When discussing opinions that address difficult issues, look beyond the four corners of the casebook to the history behind the case.  Humanize the issue.

Both of these events prompted me to think deeply about how our law library can foster research and learning on American Indian law, and specifically how I will address it in my own teaching.

How our library is working to foster research and learning on American Indian law

The UW Law Library has made an important start by developing a strong collection of materials on Native American Law & Legal Sources.  However, even the strongest collection of published legal materials cannot comprehensively support tribal law research because many of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States have not published their laws.  We’re working to support tribes that would like to do so.

Two years ago, the UW Law Library, in partnership with the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, the UW Law School Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center, the National Indian Law Library, and the Open Law Library, received a 3-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop The Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project. In this project, librarians and developers have partnered with Native Nations to publish their laws open access and incorporate them into digital library collections.  Tribal sovereignty is fundamental to the publishing system developed by our grant partner, Open Law Library.  So far, three tribes have published their laws using the platform:

Several more tribes are currently working to publish their laws using the platform.  Under the grant, we are also creating a bridge by which interested libraries can incorporate the laws of participating tribes (with their permission) into their digital library collections at no cost.  The National Indian Law Library has made the laws of two Wisconsin tribes (Stockbridge-Munsee and Lac Courte Orielles) available through their Tribal Law Gateway.  The University of Wisconsin is also working to make them available through our UW Law School Digital Repository soon.  When the pilot project concludes next year, we will make this bridge available to other libraries so that they, too, may incorporate the law of participating tribes, with the tribe’s permission, into their digital collections.

How I, as an instructor, am working to foster research and learning on American Indian law

Through the Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center, the UW Law School has had a strong history of collaboration with Wisconsin’s Native Nations and is currently working on actively expanding its presence in indigenous law.  As an instructor, I have the honor of teaching our law students about Native American law and research at two points in their law school career:

  • A guest lecture and Q&A to all law students during the first-year Legal Research & Writing course
  • My Advanced Legal Research course which is an elective for second and third-year students

I will endeavor to incorporate each of the takeaways that I learned from the Integrating Content on American Indian Law and Indigenous Identities webinar into my teaching.  I will begin by acknowledging that I am not a tribal member nor am I an expert on Native American law.  However, I will do my best to respectfully share what I have learned from reading, observing, and talking with tribal members. And I will continue to acknowledge that the University of Wisconsin–Madison occupies ancestral Ho-Chunk land and that the Ho-Chunk people, formerly known as the Wisconsin Winnebago Tribe, were forced to cede this territory based on an 1832 treaty.  But instead of stopping there, we’ll take a look at that 1832 treaty and the history behind it such as this excerpt from an English captain traveling in Wisconsin in 1837:

The Winnebago territory in Wisconsin, lately purchased of the Winnebago Indians, and comprising all the prairie land and rich mineral country from Galena to Mineral Point, is not yet offered for sale: when it is, it will be eagerly purchased; and the American Government, as it only paid the Indians at the rate of one cent and a fraction per acre, will make an enormous profit by the speculation. Well may the Indians be said, like Esau, to part with their birthright for a mess of pottage; but, in truth, they are compelled to sell—the purchase-money being a mere subterfuge, by which it may appear as if their lands were not wrested from them, although, in fact, it is.

For my Advanced Legal Research course next semester, I plan to discuss federal Indian and tribal law research alongside my lectures on federal, state, and local law, recognizing that it is a fundamental part of American law.  Previously, I had covered it as a separate lecture at the end of the course.

Thank you to the organizers and presenters of these two events for encouraging me to think more deeply about how libraries and librarians can foster research and learning on American Indian law.