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Lawyers want Indian law added to bar

SEATTLE - With 29 federally recognized American Indian tribes and nations in Washington state - and many more seeking federal recognition - a lawyer can expect to deal with some aspect of American Indian law in his or her career.

However, in 49 of 50 states, state bar exams include nothing about American Indian law. That could change in Washington.

The Northwest Indian Bar Association and the Washington State Bar Association's Indian Law Section are advocating for the inclusion of American Indian law on the state bar exam. The groups held a forum on the issue at Seattle University School of Law on Oct. 23.

"We have prompted the Washington State Bar Association to formally evaluate whether to include Indian law on the bar exam," said Gabriel Galanda, former NIBA president and chairman of the state bar's Indian Law Section.

"Following the precedent set by our Indian colleagues in New Mexico, we hope to gain momentum on this issue in the Pacific Northwest, which will spread throughout the United States."

New Mexico is the only state in the U.S. to include American Indian law on the bar exam.

American Indian law consists of those areas of the law that particularly affect American Indians - and not just treaties and gaming.

Galanda and his successor at NIBA, Rion Ramirez, said American Indian law is becoming complex as tribes and nations become more influential economically, legally and politically. Their own laws are starting to impact the areas in which they are involved: real estate development, banking and finance, telecommunications, wholesale and retail trade, and tourism.

Ramirez is general counsel of Port Madison Enterprises, the economic development arm of the Suquamish Tribe near Seattle. "(Port Madison Enterprises) is the second-largest employer in the county," Ramirez said.

"With the growth of our economic enterprises, we are a very big employer and Indian law is a very important part of the world we live in."

American Indian and non-Indian lawyers agree that their communities are becoming intertwined, particularly as American Indian influence grows politically and economically.

New Mexico included American Indian law in its state bar exam this year. In July, the Christian Science Monitor posed some questions New Mexico lawyers will need to grapple with in their careers: If someone slips and falls in an American Indian casino, who has jurisdiction: tribal, state, or federal courts? Can state officials chase poachers onto a reservation without permission? What legal issues arise in the adoption of an American Indian child?

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Often, lawyers don't recognize that a case has Native American connections. Cases have been bungled because a lawyer tried to apply state law to an American Indian issue. The Monitor cited an example of a business that entered into a contract with a New Mexico tribe.

"A dispute arose over the contract, and the lawyer for the company, unaware contracts with entities based on sovereign Indian land must be filed in either tribal or federal court, filed his case in state court," the Monitor reported. "It was thrown out. The attorney learned he couldn't file it in federal court, either, because the contract didn't include a waiver of sovereign immunity allowing the tribe to be sued.

"If required to have a basic understanding of Indian law on the bar exam, lawyers would know enough to at least recognize a tribal issue and get more help with it, reasoned state officials."

Galanda hopes discussion of testing in American Indian law will continue into other states with a significant presence of tribes, such as Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. He has written Op-Ed columns on the issue for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard newspapers.

Under-represented in legal profession

Founded in 1991, the Northwest Indian Bar Association is a non-profit organization of Native and non-Native attorneys, judges, spokespersons and students focusing on Indian law, in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory.

In the past 15 months, NIBA has grown in membership to 160 attorneys, expanded its membership to Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, and incorporated as a nonprofit organization. NIBA members now practice for high-powered national and regional law firms, state and federal governments, and on all 42 Northwest Indian reservations.

Still, Galanda said, American Indians are the most under-represented ethnic demographic in the legal profession. American Indian attorneys comprise just 0.7 percent of the Washington State Bar; only three of the nearly 600 law students at the University of Washington Law School are of American Indian ancestry.

Nationally, 4.1 million people identify themselves as Native American, but there are only 3,000 Native practitioners, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

"We recognize that the rise in Native American attorneys in the Northwest is only just beginning," Galanda said. "But we are proud to be leading the charge."

NIBA is working to increase the number of American Indian and Alaska Native attorneys in the Pacific Northwest through legal education and advocacy.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at