TEMPE, Ariz. - Matthew L.M. Fletcher is an associate professor at Michigan State University College of Law and he is the director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center. He recently published, ;'American Indian Education: Counternarrative in Racism, Struggle, and the Law'' through Routledge. He graduated from University of Michigan Law School.
Indian Country Today: Why did you choose to pursue a career in law?
Matthew L.M. Fletcher: I just want to be able to contribute something to the community and I also was thinking in different ways, even before I started college, what I could do. I had talks with people who are from my community and elders from Michigan who talked a lot about how in the '70s and '80s, the big treaty fishing cases were going on and people were really happy with the outcomes with those cases but they were sad to see all the litigation conducted and organized and control by people that were not from the community.
ICT: Do you feel like you have helped your tribe?
Fletcher: I feel like I've contributed something and I continue to contribute something. My whole life will be a process of contributing. I think it has been real good.
ICT: What is the future of Indian law?
Fletcher: It's interesting. The '70s and '80s were about litigating treaty rights. The key for Indian lawyers is not so much about going to court but it's about developing governmental structures within the tribe which is what lawyers do. It's actually a folly to go to federal courts now. All you have to do is ask anyone who does any kind of litigation in federal court if you're representing a tribe or tribal interest you can't expect to win. It's going to be that way for a long time. The thing that you see is institution building within Indian country. There are some incredible things going on that are not getting a lot of attention. There is a lot of creativity with people bringing back indigenous culture and tradition.
ICT: How would you define sovereignty?
Fletcher: My view of sovereignty is that it is the right to make your own mistakes and to decide things for yourselves. That is really what it is about. Tribes have the wherewithal, the ability and the legal authority to pursue different avenues of governance. They are going to do something where everyone shakes their heads, and then they are going to do other things where people are going to just say, ''Wow.'' There is an incredible amount of diversity and creativity going on right now.
ICT: If sovereignty is the right to make our own decisions, do you think we get to make our own decisions?
Fletcher: Absolutely. One thing you hear on the Supreme Court is, ''How can an Indian tribe really be sovereign if the United States can decide how much sovereignty it has?'' A local government doesn't have any sovereignty whatsoever. A state government, at least in political theory, is sovereign second only to the United States itself. They have a dependent sovereignty as well so it doesn't seem surprising that tribes would have dependent sovereignty.
My basis for sovereignty resides in what the treaties say. So, you have a tribe that says exactly what the tribe is giving up and what they expect in return. Some of these treaties are pretty robust. You have treaties signed with some of the tribes in Michigan and the Great Lakes and there is no conquering there. Those are powerful treaties with the understanding that the tribe is going to retain robust sovereignty.
What happened was the United States recognized Indian tribes as sovereigns right away. Even the Supreme Court has to recognize that tribes have sovereignty. It's a negotiation between the federal government and the individual tribe to determine what the parameters of that sovereignty are.
ICT: Tell me about your most recent publication, ''American Indian Education: Counternarratives in Racism, Struggle, and the Law?''
Fletcher: Well, as the title suggests, it's about American Indian education. It's not really a doctrinal restitution of what the law and politics of Indian education is. It is a counternarrative and by that I mean that it is a story about what it is like for an Indian person or a group of Indian people to participate in the American educational process. There are stories about people who are either a student or a teacher or in some other way participating in education. It could be a student in elementary school all the way up to college. They are really about providing an oral history to give a sense of what it is like for an Indian person to go through the educational process.
ICT: Why did you choose this topic for your book?
Fletcher: I had been writing very unusual law review articles over the years where I would really just write short stories and add footnotes to them. And it occurred to me that they were being published in law review articles but they didn't really have a focus. I was then introduced to a couple of very prominent legal academicians named Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic and they were about to begin editing a series of books called the Critical Educator for my publisher Routledge. They suggested that I take some of these stories I had and I adapted them in the context on American Indian education for this series.
ICT: Why are indigenous peoples, their culture, and traditions treated as objects in the classroom and in the curriculum?
Fletcher: I think that there are two things at play. Both of these things are powerfully present and one is racism and the other is ignorance. What you see with Indian people, and this isn't true just in education but everywhere, is that the amount of racism that is directed toward Indian people is incredible and it's out in the open and it's sad. The really tricky thing about it is that most people who perpetuate these sorts of things don't even think they are being racist.
Classic examples are the mascots at the University of North Dakota and Florida state ... crazy, crazy racism. If you did this with any other racial demographic other than American Indians you would have an incredible backlash and they would change it immediately if they wanted to maintain any level of respectability.
But with Indians, they get away with it. That's part of what education is about is creating awareness. It is hard for Indian students when they are a small minority and you get the same racism from teachers, other students.
So education really is a focused curriculum that respects Indian people for what they are as opposed to treating them like an object. That is just the first step and it will go a long way. It is a mandatory step for us to have any real progress.
ICT: Why hasn't an ''honest discussion'' occurred already?
Fletcher: I think that in pockets of the United States there have been honest discussions. The first chapter in the book is about an Indian woman from her community that wants to challenge the use of a racially bigoted stereotypical sports name and logo. She goes to her local school board to challenge it. Then she also goes to challenge the curriculum. Those conversations are often one sided: Where the Indian person is trying to put forth a program of education to try and eradicate ignorance and the other side doesn't even want to hear it. Doesn't even understand what the question is in some ways. There is usually willful ignorance there.
I think that the reason there really hasn't been a national discussion on this is largely because the demographics of Indian people. ... There just isn't enough of them. I think that Indian tribes need to be more progressive and active on this question.
ICT: Considering educational policies of the past and present that were intended to assimilate, will an American education ever mean an indigenized education?
Fletcher: I think it can be done on small levels. I think you are already seeing local curriculum being changed. When you say something about indigenizing education, I think there are two ways of looking at indigenizing. One way is just the very simple, almost superficial, recognition that Indian people are people and that they had a history, they have a history, and they are ongoing. These are things that Indian people fight for every day. In the academy, it is much more fundamental and thorough than that and I think that you are beginning to see a little of that on reservation schools.