The collective engagement of the University of Arizona Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program affiliates has led to major legal victories, leading publications and the development of new laws and methods aiding indigenous people around the world.
It all began with an administrative directive Robert A. Williams Jr. accepted when he arrived at the UA in 1987, resulting in the development of courses, texts, degree programs and other offerings, such as clinical and internships placements centered on indigenous and tribal law.
The program itself would retain a very sharp focus on regional tribal and indigenous issues, but also developed an international, global focus.
This intense effort to build a new program around indigenous issues was a first at the UA, and a rarity for higher educational institutions across the nation.
"The original vision was to create the best Indian law and indigenous rights program in the world," said Williams, the E. Thomas Sullivan Professor of Law and American Indian Studies and director of the program, commonly known as IPLP.
"Strengthening tribal law and ensuring justice has a direct impact on the state," said Williams, a member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe. "The core of what we do gets to that original land grant philosophy to benefit the people, the state and the economy."
This weekend, IPLP – which is housed within the James E. Rogers College of Law – is celebrating its 10-year anniversary with a conference and reunion.
The Oct. 8-9 event will be held at the law school, 1201 E. Speedway Blvd., and will feature roundtable discussions, lectures and a keynote address by S. James Anaya, a UA Regents' Professor and the James J. Lenoir Professor of Human Rights Law and Policy.
Anaya, also the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, wrote the leading treatise in the field and has spent years working to protect and preserve the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. He will speak Oct. 8, 12:30-2 p.m.
The weekend event also is designed to celebrate the accomplishments of IPLP's students, faculty and staff that are broad ranging. Among them:
- Williams, IPLP's director, co-authored the leading casebook on federal Indian law.
- Faculty authored the leading treatise on federal Indian law, including the leading treatise on Navajo courts and Navajo common law.
- Faculty member Melissa Tatum developed methods for detailing and publishing opinions in tribal courts.
- Faculty, students and staff have assisted tribal governments in drafting laws; represented tribal groups and individuals in cases involving human rights and land rights.
- Faculty have served as prosecutors, public defenders, legal advisers and judges with students also serving in supervised positions.
- Faculty and students have served representatives for tribal members before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples and Supreme Court of Belize, among numerous other courts.
- IPLP affiliates regularly teach and lecture in Europe and Asia.
- Alumni have and do work for the Native American Rights Fund, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and a range of corporations, nonprofits, schools and other institutions.
"What is very satisfying is that our graduates have been hired in some of the best jobs in the world," Williams said.
Also, the program is now offering a standalone tribal courts clinic this fall, which is being led by Raymond D. Austin, IPLP's distinguished jurist in residence. Also, Robert Hershey directs the Indigenous Peoples Law Clinic and Seanna Howard, IPLP's staff attorney and an assistant adjunct professor, leads an advocacy workshop on international human rights.
"We're delivering direct service to tribal courts, serving as legal counsel in addition to our long-term, systemic projects we work on," Williams said.
And IPLP is still the only one in the nation that offers a focus on indigenous law in its three law degrees – the juris doctorate, master's degree and doctor of judicial science, said Melissa Tatum, IPLP's associate director.,
"We have students doing incredible things who are dedicated to serving the people," Tatum said, noting that about 40 percent of IPLP's alumni enter public service.
"And we're not only some of the leading scholars here, but we have a commitment to public service," Tatum said. "Our work cannot be in a vacuum. We need to be out in the world putting our knowledge to practice."
Alumnae Moira Gracey said she actively pursued studies at UA's law school because of Anaya and Williams.
"I preferred the opportunity to work more closely with those two professors," said Gracey, who completed undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Toronto. She completed the UA program in 2005.
Mary Guss had been living and working in Alaska for decades before deciding to pursue studies at the UA.
"When they accepted me, I sold my house, closed my practice, resigned my federal position and came down here to do the program," Guss said.
"To me, my professors were like rock stars and the first great gift of the program was simply being in their classes and being fully exposed to issues I had only peripherally been aware of before," said Guss, now one of IPLP's staff attorneys and also an appellate justice for the Yavapai Apache Nation.
Gracey currently works at Carranza LLP, mostly on personal injury cases, but other types of cases and pro bono work as well. While at the UA, she became involved in a landmark case for Mayan villagers in Belize that IPLP members eventually helped to win. To date, she continues to work with the legal team.
"It was inspiring," she said, adding that her IPLP experience has also enabled her to teach.
"I learned a lot about doing human rights litigation, which I continue to try to do as much of as possible, although not necessarily in indigenous rights," Gracey said. "My year in the program itself was one of the best years of my life."