Indigenous Law and Policy Center of MSU: Educating non-Natives

Michigan State University houses the Indigenous Law and Policy Center, learn more about the center and what it offers to Michigan citizens and others across the nation.

The Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University is a program for law students who wish to develop special expertise in indigenous law, policy and practice. Professor Matthew Fletcher serves as Director of the Center. The Center also houses Associate Professor Wenona Singel and staff attorney and adjunct professor Kathryn Fort. I had the opportunity to speak with Fort, who a shared a description of her work as well as ways to engage non-native audiences about tribal governments.

When asked about her primary role at the Indigenous Law and Policy Center – and what opportunities are offered through the Center that Michigan citizens might be interested in learning more about – Fort explained, “I have many roles at the Indigenous Law and Policy Center that shift depending on the semester. I teach a class on the Indian Child Welfare Act; I manage a project observing Indian Child Welfare Act cases in state courts; I advise our students; I manage the administrative aspects of the center; I do my own research and writing on federal Indian law and present at conferences across the country.”

She also explained, “As for what we offer that people might be interested in, we host a conference every fall on a different aspect of federal Indian law or tribal law. The conference is usually attended by a cross section of Indian law professors, tribal judges, tribal attorneys, state attorneys and students. In addition, each spring we host three to four events on books recently published on tribal issues. All of these events are open to the public. All of that information is also available at Turtle Talk.”

I asked Fort what resources she might recommend for individuals interested in becoming more familiar with tribal governmental functions, current issues or "hot topics" facing tribes today. She suggested starting with Turtle Talk.

“While we cover a lot of legal issues, we are particularly focused on issues in Michigan and post information about the mining at Eagle Rock, the passage of the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act through the legislature, ongoing coverage of cases in the Michigan Supreme Court, the Lansing casino proposal, and so on,” said Fort.

“We put up between three and eight posts a day, and about 2,000 people from across the country check the site every day. We also have a twitter presence (@ILPCTurtleTalk) where we tweet our posts and retweet information from across Indian Country. This has been particularly important during the recent Idle No More protests, a grassroots movement started by First Nations women in Canada.”

She also suggested reading Patrick LeBeau's “Rethinking Michigan History;” she also recommended Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House,” which provides a heartbreaking overview of how tribal, state and federal jurisdictions interact on a Minnesota reservation. Erdrich won the National Book Award for the novel, and although it's set in Minnesota, it's based in an Ojibwe community; there are a number of Ojibwe nations in Michigan. The issues, the language and the culture represented in the book are similar (though not exactly the same) to issues, language and cultural aspects of some tribes in Michigan.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, I asked Kate, “Why is it important for Michigan citizens to care about tribal governments?”

She responded: “Why is it important for non-Natives to care about tribal governments? The same reasons they care about the federal government, or the actions of the government of Wisconsin or Ohio. Tribes are sovereign nations, with a government-to-government relationship with both the federal government and the Michigan state government. There are 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan, all providing services to their citizens and managing their resources and economic development. Tribes in Michigan are huge economic drivers in the areas where they are based and will continue to be. Tribes have established treaty rights throughout the state and manage their environmental and cultural resources, including the Great Lakes. Tribes are major presence in our state. Ignoring them is to ignore reality.”

Michigan State University Extension educators who specialize in government and public policy provide broad forms of civics education for youth and adults. To learn more about this and other programs contact an expert in your area, visit ask an expert or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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