Skip to main content

TSAILE, Ariz. (AP) — The first college established decades ago by an American Indian tribe in the United States is now working to create a law school. 

Formal efforts picked up speed with a recent two-day symposium held at Diné College on the Navajo Nation. Officials talked about everything from the college's original mission and accreditation to student courses, judicial advocates and what community such an institution would serve. 

Rex Lee Jim, the director of the college's Navajo Sovereignty Institute, said that ideally, the law school would specialize in emerging areas of Indian law that are significant to the Navajo Nation economy.

Jim organized the symposium and will help set up an advisory committee going forward. 

Those who attended the recent meeting included Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez; Stacy Leeds, dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law and a former Supreme Court Justice for the Cherokee Nation; Robert Yazzie, a former chief justice of the Navajo Nation; JoAnn Jayne, the Navajo Nation's current chief justice; Patrick Anderson, an Alaska-based lawyer and the CEO of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc.; and former Navajo Nation Chairman Peterson Zah.

Zah said there were discussions about creating a law school during his tenure more than three decades ago. A former director of People's Legal Services, he offered to formally take the matter before the tribal council.

"This is something we need for the betterment of the Navajo people," he said.

Diné College began in 1968 as the first tribally-controlled institution of higher learning in the U.S. It has campuses in Arizona and New Mexico.

A 2015 essay in Tribal College Journal said the need for Native American attorneys has never been greater. "There are approximately 2,400 American Indians who are lawyers, amounting to only about 0.2 percent of all lawyers in the United States, even though the U.S. Census estimates that American Indians make up 1.6 percent of the population," wrote Matthew Fletcher, a professor of law at Michigan State University and member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Compare those numbers to the general population: The country is about 77 percent white but make up more than 88 percent of lawyers. 

Fletcher wrote: "American Indians are sorely underrepresented in the legal field in general and in the federal judiciary in particular. Out of more than 800 federal judges, only one is a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe: Judge Diane Humetewa (Hopi) in the District of Arizona."