HLS to establish Indian Law chair

News   /   February 12, 2003  / 


BY EZRA ROSSER

Prof. Robert Williams will be the first Oneida Nation Visiting Professor of Law.

For 1L Wenona Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, the decision to attend the Law School was greatly complicated by the fact that at the time HLS did not have a faculty member teaching what she was interested in — Indian Law.

“[The lack of Indian law was] a major factor in my thinking, because my other option was ASU [Arizona State University] which had an Indian Law program,” Benally said. Still, she chose to come to HLS.

Especially for Native American students, the recent announcement of the Oneida Indian Nation Professorship of Law serves as welcome academic recognition of the importance of Indian law in U.S. jurisprudence. The chair is the result of a $3 million gift from the Oneida Indian Nation and will be used to support visiting professors of law until a final candidate is selected to fill the tenured position.

Despite the fact that the Oneida Indian Nation is located in New York state, Director of Media Relations for the Oneida Indian Nation Mark Emery said that HLS was selected because the law school is “out in front on legal issues and legal education.” He added that the University, though not particularly the Law School has always had a strong reputation at the college level for Indian studies.

HLS Associate Dean Alan Ray, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, credits Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, ’90, with much of the work behind establishing the chair. The idea for the professorship originated in a discussion regarding the need for such a professor between Halbritter and members of the Law School’s Native American Alumni Association, including Suffolk Law School Prof. Kristen Carpenter, ’98.

Ken Pepion, the Executive Director of the Harvard Native American Program (HUNAP serves as the umbrella organization for Native students as well as certain Native studies), greeted the news of the Oneida chair enthusiastically. “The lack of Native Faculty in any of the schools means that HUNAP welcomes the opportunity of a Native chair at the law school,” he said.

The Oneida gift is unique in that other tribes have not given to other programs at Harvard. The Oneida Nation is located in central New York and operates the Turning Stone Casino Resort as well as a marina, an RV Park and smokesonline.com, a site that sells discount cigarettes. Pepion added that although this gift is the first, it may set a precedent for giving from tribes who have the means to do so.

“For too long, American Indian Law has been marginalized in legal education,” Dean Robert Clark said of the new chair. “I hope the establishment of this professorship will send a strong signal that the study of American Indian legal systems should be a vital area of scholarship at American law schools.”

After receiving Clark’s blessing, the University agreed to let the plan move forward. The next step in the process was the formation of an ad hoc committee on Indian law scholarship, chaired by Prof. Joseph Singer. The committee is charged with identifying the leading scholars in the field, in hopes of determining the best candidates to recruit for future positions. Although Ray said that it is too soon to say when the chair will be filled, the Law School has announced that Prof. Robert Williams, Jr. will be the first Oneida Nation Visiting Professor of Law.

Williams, currently a professor at the University of Arizona Law School, is chair of the school’s Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program. He is also a member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe of North Carolina. Along with Prof. James Anaya, also of University of Arizona Law School, Williams has co-taught HLS’ indigenous people’s rights winter course and the corresponding spring clinical for the past two years.

In winter 2004, the Law School will replace the old program with a course in federal Indian law.

“I found it interesting that [Williams and Anaya] were able to put Federal Indian Law into an international framework,” said Edward Grauman, a 3L who took the winter course and spring clinical during his 2L year. He added that with the replacement of the old program, “students will be losing a valuable perspective.”

As the first Oneida Visiting Professor, Williams is also under strong consideration to hold the chair. Ray said that Williams’ current role will give him “the fullest exposure to the process” before a final chair is found.

“It couldn’t have gone to a better guy,” Grauman said of the decision to hire Williams.

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