- Fellowship year:2016-2017
- University: Columbia University
- Dissertation Topic/Category: United States
- Dissertation Title: 'The Sovereignty that Seemed Lost Forever'1: How a Handful of Lawyers Catalyzed the Field of Indian Rights Law in the post-Civil Rights Era
Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, the Supreme Court reviewed court cases dealing with Indian rights and rendered decisions supporting Indian sovereignty over their affairs on a scale unprecedented in U.S. history. Revered as the golden period of Indian rights adjudication by Indian rights lawyers and legal scholars, the era seems to embody the triumph of the Native American struggle for sovereignty of the civil rights movement and the official federal policy of self-determination announced by Nixon in his 1970 Message to Congress. But this era of bliss ended in the late 1980s to early 1990s, partly as a result of the shifting composition of the Supreme Court. Apart from a couple of thriving areas- such as Indian gaming- Indian sovereignty over Indian Country and Indian rights continues to be vulnerable to further excisions. As scholars have noted, federal-tribal relations remain an "ongoing contest over sovereignty"2.
My dissertation chronicles the emergence of the specialized field of Indian rights legal practice in order to understand why and how, in the post-civil rights era, law suddenly came to be percieved by Indian rights advocates as a potentially successful avenue for defending rights that seemed long lost, and how lawyers revived it. In particular, I tell a story of the work of a small group of lawyers who, after 'falling into Indian law by accident' in the late 1960s and early 1970s, decided to dedicate their respective careers to defending Indian rights. They would give life to a body of law whose legitimacy had previously seemed obsolete and subject to ad hoc modifications enabling many things except tribal sovereignty.
1 Charles Wilkinson, Opening Keynote Address, 45th Anniversary of the Native American Rights Fund, University of Colorado Law School, Boulder, CO, November 5, 2015.
2 David E. Wilkins and K. Tsianina Lomawaima, Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), 5.