Skip to main content

American Indian law is key to intellectual defense

  • Author:
  • Updated:

American Indian sovereignty is a way of being; it is a way of thinking; it is a political and intellectual structure of great meaning that deserves the most serious consideration, from its national ethnogenesis to its most studied cultural dimensions.

The thinking and conceptual framework of the traditional languages, cultures and governments of American Indians, as presently studied and discerned, are beginning to provide excellent perspectives. Theoretic and practical approaches, in the prism of the ancient teachings, about many disciplines and topics, including the study of humanity in the natural world, are increasingly being assessed based on pragmatic results.

Harvard University got the Indian prize last week, and deservedly so. The Oneida Nation in New York donated $3 million to endow the Harvard Law School with a professorship devoted to American Indian law. It did so to signal to the academic community, starting with the august Ivy League university in Cambridge, Mass., that tribal economic power intends to support the proper study and research on the richness of Native peoples' histories and legal realities in the North America. Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, a Harvard graduate, steered the gift of the nation, to "help create a better understanding of the complex legal issues faced by all American Indians today and in the future."

The depth and range of experience found in American Indian cultures is only beginning to be understood and discerned. Many disciplines have overlapped studies of and about American Indian peoples, but a basis of studies that transcends specific disciplines is most desired, most useful and effective. We salute the signal sent by the Oneida Nation (parent corporate owner of this newspaper) in its endowment of an academic chair at Harvard University. Endowment is forever when it comes to offering a programmatic base. This Harvard deserves, after years of sustaining a number of creative Native initiatives. At a time when other universities are cutting back American Studies programs, Harvard is defining itself with its best efforts in law and business development.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The gift supports the establishment of a secure and quality-guaranteed position that will contribute to the long-term intellectual study and advancement of American Indian law. The fact that Native nations, which are doing well through self-determined business enterprises, are moving to directly support improved scholarship and education of Native legal, social and historical topics is of considerable common value as a model and strategy of tribal philanthropy. Ultimately, more and more scholarship and research needs to emerge from the Indian experience, from the cultural logic, from the Native intellectual bases. The idea of "the people," is one required principle. Respectful assessment of human interfaces with the natural world is another. Woman as the center of family and family as center of nation has great durability in the cultural thinking as well. There is of course much more.

The picture is this: Indian sovereignty as a base of legal reality for some 562 Native nations and communities in the United States, with its central argument of politically and culturally distinct bases within the American nation state, must be continually analyzed, understood and lived. Sovereignty, always a goal, is not always practiced at its desired level. The quest of Native nations to strive for self-sufficiency and for self-reliance is to persist in the world as peoples. This inspirational and innovative endeavor to endow a chair at an institution of higher learning, signaled by Oneida leadership, challenges wealthy tribes to also endow programs that will support teaching and research positions, in university and college programs at major institutions, including tribal colleges, throughout the country. We hope it starts a trend.

Well-to-do tribes are urged to consider the model. One of these endowments provided annually or as appropriate for the rest of the decade seems a great goal. By funding these types of endowed chairs, and by funding endowments for the tribal colleges and for policy think tanks, the line of defense on Indian rights can hold. The country needs to hear Native perspectives. Indian country needs to entertain new ideas and know how events and trends affect our home communities. Endowments for American Indian legal scholarship; for education and for research; for communication and expression of the American Indian standing; these are great and sustainable gifts to the generations.