VERMILLION, S.D. - The University of South Dakota's Indian law program may be small, but one dedicated professor has given it a national reputation.
In a state like South Dakota, where American Indians make up over 8 percent of the population, a law program with an emphasis on American Indian law is a natural fit. With approximately 8,000 students, the University of South Dakota is a small school, even by the standards of the sparsely populated upper plains.
"What's nice about the University of South Dakota is that we have a small private school feel, but with public school tuition," says Barry Vickrey, dean of the University of South Dakota's School of Law. "It's the best of both worlds."
The law school itself has 225 students with 75 in each level of the three-year program. Last year the school graduated six American Indian students, far above the national average. One of those students, says Vickrey, named Dani Dougherty, was the editor-in-chief of the school's law review and he describes the group of six as "future all-stars in the field of law."
The school's Indian law emphasis is divided into three classes, one for each year of the total law program. The first is an introductory course on federal Indian law; the second year students take a class on Indian jurisdiction; and third year students attend a regular seminar on Indian law.
Students with an Indian law emphasis take part in a variety of "externships" where they gain their legal chops by working at one of South Dakota's reservations. One of these externships involves the students serving as clerks for tribal judges in order to do research for them. Federal and state judges have legal clerks to do this research but cash-strapped tribes often do not have the resources to hire such clerks.
Also, every other year the school puts on an Indian Law Symposium, which draws prominent experts in the legal field from all over the nation.
Law students often participate and help coordinate the event.
Additionally, Vickrey says that the University of South Dakota law school offers a host of complimentary classes whose subject matter overlaps many of the central issues to Indian law. For example, he says that the law school offers courses in environmental law, water law, health law and elder law, to name just a few.
"These issues are issues that are very important to Indian law," says Vickrey.
Vickrey gives much of the credit to law professor Frank Pommersheim, whose efforts Vickrey credits with giving the school a national reputation.
Pommersheim, who is non-Indian, had worked on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation for several years prior to teaching Indian law and says his experiences there helped shape his view of Indian law. He has taught Indian law at the university for the past 19 years and says that the school has had an identifiable Indian law emphasis for the past decade.
In fact Pommersheim returns to the Rosebud Reservation every single semester, but his visits have a purpose.
One of the things that very much surprised Pommersheim when he began teaching Indian law was the fact that most of his students, nearly all from South Dakota, had never before seen an Indian reservation.
"I had just assumed, given the number of reservations in the state that most of the non-Indian students had at least been on a reservation before."
So to expose the students to what life is like on the reservation, Pommersheim takes students from his introductory course on Indian law on a two-day field trip to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation every semester, an experience that he says his students find rewarding.
"From what I read in my student evaluations, the trip out to Rosebud is one of the things my students seem to love the most," says Pommersheim.
Pommersheim says the field trip helps bridge a knowledge gap that the general population has about American Indians in general. He says that he is often peppered with questions from students that are unaware of basic sovereignty issues such as why states are not allowed to tax tribal casino operations.
"One of the things that I really have to teach the students about is the idea of sovereignty, particularly the non-Indian students in the program."
Pommersheim's students must have been doing their homework. This past academic year, students from the University of South Dakota's law school took part in a national moot court competition. A moot court competition is similar to a mock court but differs in that it mimics an appeals court where lawyers argue their cases in front of a panel of judges.
The moot court competition held at Columbia University in New York City, was sponsored by National Native American Law Students Association (NNALSA). The teams were comprised of two people each and two American Indian University of South Dakota law students, law review editor Dougherty and Leonica Charging came in third place for their legal brief and Dougherty came in second in oral arguments.
For now Pommersheim is taking a work vacation in the Pacific Northwest where he is a guest professor at Lewis and Clark College, a small liberal arts school near Portland, Ore. where he is teaching a class in Indian law this summer.
When he gets back to South Dakota Pommersheim will have to take the full reigns of the law program. John Lavelle, the other Indian law professor at the University of South Dakota left after the end of this past academic year to take a post at the University of New Mexico, where he will begin teaching in the fall.
However, Vickrey says that the school remains committed to having two full time American Indian law professors; a significant number given that the law school only has 225 students; and says that they will conduct a search this coming year to find a replacement for Lavelle.