Editor's note: A quote from UNM law student Katherine Worthington has been corrected for accuracy. The Daily Lobo regrets the error.
UNM’s School of Law recently ranked among the top 100 law schools in the nation, and part of the reason for that may be a program offered at only two dozen universities in the country.
The Indigenous Peoples Law program provides academic course work specializing in Native American law, which is a growing field in the Southwest.
“Because of the huge presence that Native people have in New Mexico, and the complexity of Indian law, the demand for lawyers in this field is high,” said Barbara Creel, professor of law.
The program offers a variety of routes law students can take to incorporate Native American law into their curriculum. According to the School of Law’s website, the Indian Law Certificate was created because of an increased need for attorneys versed in Indian Law.
A key component to the ILC Program is the Southwest Indian Law Clinic, where students are offered the opportunity to practice Indian law and represent clients in state, federal and tribal courts while supervised by a licensed attorney.
The SILC is an outlet for Native American people who are seeking law services that they may not be able to afford otherwise. Creel said potential clients must meet financial eligibility requirements to access SILC — an effort by the law school to avoid taking paying clients away from practicing attorneys in the state.
The Native population in New Mexico faces difficulties when seeking legal services, including geographic limitations and a lack of general legal knowledge, Creel said. Jurisdictional complexities between state, federal and tribal courts can lead the people seeking council to become uncertain of which laws take precedence in their cases.
Heidi Todacheene, a third-year law student in the ILC Program, said there are unique hurdles the indigenous population faces when trying to access legal services.
“Due to the economic conditions within certain tribes and pueblos, it is hard (to seek legal services),” Todacheene said. “That’s why SILC is open: so that people who can’t afford to adjudicate some of their legal issues out of pocket, or that don’t have other resources, can come in and get the help they seek.”
Creel used a hypothetical family law case to illustrate how complicated certain issues can become for a tribal citizen. She said that if a Native mother and non-Native father are seeking to negotiate a visitation schedule for their child, it becomes difficult to navigate which court — tribal or state — has the jurisdiction to decide the visitation rights.
“Indian people are subjected to three different sovereigns because of their political status, and this leads to jurisdictional issues when it comes to the laws of each institute,” Creel said.
These unclear lines of jurisdiction make it vital to have attorneys versed in Indian Law who understand the complexity of the field to resolve any legal issues, she said. Creel said the solution to these problems is to train everyone in Indian Law, including the students, the bench and the bar.
Although the ILC is providing a valuable legal service, some Native citizens can be hesitant to work with law students whom they do not feel an ethnic kinship with, said UNM law student Katherine Worthington.
Worthington said she completely understands the reluctance of some Native clients, considering the hundreds of years of turmoil the Native community has experienced with non-Natives.
“Indigenous clients will be more apt to warm up to my partner," Worthington said. “It takes a while longer for me to earn their trust, to show that I am able to advocate for issues that they have, and that I can see what the problems are and respect them.”
Robert Salas is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He wrote this story as part of UNM’s New Mexico News Port project. Salas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DailyLobo.