Christina Andrews, a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation, always thought about the issues facing her tribe as unique and local. That changed this month when she met a group of indigenous people from Australia and Canada who shared strikingly similar stories.
Andrews is one of about 30 individuals from the United States, Canada and Australia who have come together at the University of Arizona to participate in the Indigenous Governance Certificate program, a non-credit continuing education program offered by the James E. Rogers College of Law's Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program in partnership with the UA's Native Nations Institute and Native Peoples Technical Assistance Office.
The intensive three-week program is geared toward individuals who work for or with indigenous communities across the globe, or those who are preparing to do so. It teaches basic principles of nation building and how to put those principles into practice.
Research by the UA's Native Nations Institute has shown that tribes that take control of their own governance are the most successful.
"Success also depends on the creation of effective and culturally legitimate governing systems," said Miriam Jorgensen, research director for the Native Nations Institute and the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, who co-designed and co-manages the Indigenous Governance Certificate program with Melissa Tatum, research professor of law and director of the law school's Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program, or IPLP.
The certificate program offers resources for people who are developing or working in those governance systems, with courses covering topics such as introductory principles of nation building, comparative indigenous governance, indigenous constitutions, indigenous justice systems, and defining and protecting identity for indigenous people.
"What these students have in common is that they all work on issues involving policy and public administration and governmental administration, so even if they're not lawyers, law and legal policies and regulations are at the heart of what they do," Tatum said. "That’s really who this is designed for – people who need to know law and policy and governance administration to do their jobs. They don’t need a full law degree; they don’t need a full master's in public administration degree."
"They just need some practical education that is targeted at what they are creating on a daily basis: stronger indigenous nations," Jorgensen added.
The program is in its second year at the UA. While last year's program included a series of courses spread throughout the year, it was revamped this year and packaged as a concentrated three-week program, making it easier for people from outside the U.S. to participate.
"It's been amazing to be able to see that indigenous issues are not just local, they're international," said Andrews, who does consulting for the Tohono O'odham Nation. "Some of the challenges we've faced with colonization and having our land taken away and the struggle to be recognized are across the board. I see these things globally now, whereas before it was more local. I see the successes of other tribes and can take away from their successes and make our own."
Tatum and Jorgensen developed the certificate program in response to multiple requests from people around the world who knew about the work of IPLP and the Native Nations Institute and wanted to have the opportunity to learn more.
The program consists of seven courses offered in person at the UA in January, along with five additional courses offered online or during a second block of in-person classes being developed for next semester. Students interested in taking individual classes without completing the certificate may do so.
Not only does the Indigenous Governance Certificate program present students with the educational tools to help them rebuild their nations, it also unites indigenous people from around the world to share their experiences, problems and solutions.
"There's nobody else building indigenous nations except other indigenous people," Jorgensen said. "What we're doing is connecting them with other people and creating that capacity to share with one another as a peer group – to share information, to share solutions, to share problems and to move their own projects forward."
Students in the program say they've been surprised by the similarities between indigenous people in different parts of the world.
"Having the Australians here, it's fascinating to hear about the similarities among their history and Canadian history and the history of Native nations in the U.S.," said Angela Wesley, one of two Canadians in the program and a member of the Huu-ay-aht community.
"We can see real-life examples, as opposed to just what's in a textbook," said Wesley, who helped draft her nation's constitution. "There's always something to learn from our neighbors and other nations."
Thomas Day, one of 10 Australians in the program, agreed that the cross-cultural experience has been beneficial.
"Hearing experiences from the U.S. and Canada has been really enlightening," said Day, who works with, and is a member of, the Gunditjmara people. "Every class has had moments where it all makes sense and you know you can adapt what you're learning back home."
Tatum says she hopes to grow the certificate program and reach individuals from even more nations in the future.
"There's a universality of issues, and that's part of the reason we put this together," she said. "Even though there might be different legal contexts for tribes in the U.S. or First Nations in Canada or Aboriginal nations in Australia, they are dealing with the same issues, so the idea is to share what we know with them, but also for them to share what they have learned with each other."