The University of Richmond School of Law will offer a course examining the laws that manage relationships between the government and American Indians, lessons Virginia tribal leaders hope to replicate at campuses across the state.
They point to limited regional opportunities to learn state and federal laws on matters such as tribal sovereignty, which could become increasingly important should Virginia’s native tribes achieve long-sought federal recognition.
The one-semester class will likely begin next fall and carry about three credits, said Rod Smolla, dean of the private university’s law school.
“We will gauge student interest and invite faculty members to determine if it’s something we would want to offer on a long-term basis,” Smolla said.
It’s a victory for Virginia American Indians, who have long traveled out West — where tribes are more dense and American Indian law more vital — to study the field, said Upper Mattaponi Chief Kenneth Adams. He and other tribal leaders negotiated with UR officials to offer the class. They’re also in negotiations with the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
Adams first grew interested after he attempted unsuccessfully to find a nearby American Indian law course.
The closest schools offering such courses are New York’s Columbia University and the University of Connecticut, according to a listing compiled by the American Indian Law Center in New Mexico. According to the center, about 24 colleges offer such courses.
“I would like to see it available in all Virginia law schools,” Adams said. “The first challenge is to get it as part of a required curriculum.”
Native law is a vast field with origins dating to Christopher Columbus’ arrival, explained Derril Jordan, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in the field.
Before long, he said, settlers in places like Jamestown faced serious social questions.
“What were the human rights, what were the political rights, what were the property rights of the native peoples,” he said. “The Spanish crown, and eventually other countries, had to deal with that.”
The result was a set of laws regulating interactions between government entities and tribes. Modern American Indian law addresses everything from who controls tribal land to debates over centuries-old treaties.
Such a debate has played out in Newport News, where the Mattaponi Indian tribe has battled the construction of a 12.2 billion gallon reservoir it claims violates a 17th-century treaty. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld a state permit for construction Nov. 4.
Justices ruled, however, that a lower court must decide whether the project violates a 1677 treaty with the Mattaponi tribe.
Jordan, a Mattaponi, said the bulk of native law is federal and has little impact on Virginia’s eight tribes since none is federally recognized. But that soon could change.
Six Virginia tribes are awaiting word from Congress on long-standing bids for recognition. The decades-old effort, if successful, could make them eligible for assistance programs and other benefits.
Congress awarded $6 billion in funding to the nation’s 562 recognized tribes in 2004.
— Associated Press
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