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Gonzaga U. launches federal Indian law program

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SPOKANE, Wash. – Gonzaga University School of Law has officially launched its new Federal Indian Law Program with Professor Joshua Jay Kanassatega at the helm.

Kanassatega has been on campus since last October. He holds degrees from Bridgewater State College, Purdue and a J.D. degree from the University of Washington. Before arriving at Gonzaga he practiced law in Minneapolis, Minn. from 1990 to 2008. Before that, from 1983-87, he served as solicitor general for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. He has extensive experience representing and counseling clients in commercial transactions with Indian tribes, agencies, tribally controlled entities and tribally-controlled community colleges.

“We did a national search and were lucky enough to hire Jay. We had hoped to find someone who was qualified, who shared our vision, and who possessed the necessary cultural and ethical sensitivities,” said George Critchlow, associate professor. “Jay’s Native heritage and his credentials as a successful lawyer and tribal advocate fit the bill.”

The central theme of the program is nurturing the development of both Gonzaga law school students and American Indian government. It will focus on providing students a doctrinal and practical education experience, so when they graduate, they will have the substantive knowledge and practical skills in federal Indian law to become highly talented counselors. For American Indian governments, the program focuses on analysis and development of tribal public policy in numerous areas and how that policy relates to tribal law and government for tribal members to strengthen the long-term vitality of Indian government within the American political system.

The first phase of the program began last June when the Federal Indian Law Clinic at University Legal Assistance was launched. This clinic was created in partnership with the Kalispel Tribe, providing law students the opportunity to enhance their education by representing members of the Kalispel Tribe in civil and criminal matters in both Kalispel and Washington State courts.

The second phase begins in February with the creation of a public policy institute known as the Institute for Development of Economic Policy for Indigenous People. It will work to promote development of policies to advance principles of economic self-determination for indigenous people. An initial undertaking will be a three-year demonstration project focusing on developing economic policies and laws by tribal and/or state governments. Participants will likely come from four to five American Indian tribes and two Alaska Native regional corporations and associated villages.

The third phase will include curriculum development, continuing education programs and enhancement of efforts to recruit American Indian and Alaskan Native students. Gonzaga Dean Earl Martin noted that the law school will, for the first time, participate in a unique national pre-graduate school program geared to help American Indian college students prepare for graduate school and particularly law school. This four-day program will take place at the University of California in July.

The Gonzaga Indian Law Program will be assisted by an advisory board consisting of representatives from 10 northwest Indian reservations located in the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Critchlow talked about the unique association Gonzaga University has with American Indians which played a role in establishing the program. “The Jesuits started the University in 1887. The intention at the time was to educate Indian kids. The Jesuits had this mission and commitment. The irony is this; when they started this school and built the first building they needed some financial support and support of the local merchants. The local merchants were all white and said ‘sure we’ll support you, but we won’t have our kids going to school with Indian kids.’ And so for financial reasons, the Jesuits capitulated to economic realities and initially prohibited Indian kids from coming to the school. Later that changed and they started working with Indian kids and some outreach through missions and that sort of thing.

“We were aware of that history and both Jesuits and non-Jesuits associated with the university over the years have tried to find ways to correct and ameliorate those historic ironies and contradictions. Here at the law school we’ve been aware that we’re surrounded by tribes. It seemed to us this was a logical place to have an Indian law program and to put more emphasis on training students, both Native as well as non-Native, about the legal needs of the tribes and individual Natives to equip them with not only theoretical knowledge, but some of the skills and cultural information that would be useful in terms of being effective lawyers in representing Indian interests.”

That background and interest led to the preparation of a paper proposing an Indian law program and what it might look like. Martin was immediately supportive and enthusiastic. The end result, after a lot of hard work, comes with the announcement that Gonzaga University now has an Indian law program.

“I’d like this Indian law program to be many things,” Critchlow said. “You want to educate kids about what’s going on in the world of Indian law in the hope they can go out and practice law and do it well and do it sensibly. If they run into a problem that involves jurisdiction, sovereignty, or economy involving a tribe, hopefully they’ll have an understanding of how to approach those kinds of problems and be sensitive culturally as well as in terms of their legal knowledge.

“Another goal I would really like is that the university, for historical reasons and missions reasons, can in time be seen and perceived by the Indian community, by the tribes, as a real and important partner.”

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