The Native Nations Externship builds on UW Law School’s rich history of growing community in tribal law.
University of Wisconsin Law School has a rich and impressive history of building community when it comes to tribal law. Through the Native Nations Externship Program, established in Fall 2022, the Law School continues to be a trailblazer in tribal law and leadership.
The program resulted from the passions of UW Law students and faculty who wanted to ensure the Law School had “no barriers” when it came to furthering the work of Wisconsin’s tribes and Native Nations, said Erin McBride, director of the program.
“In creating this externship program, our current Indigenous Law Students Association (ILSA) membership was instrumental in outlining the interests and ambitions of the law students,” explained McBride. “I really wanted to create a program that appreciated and honored why our students chose UW Law in the first place and recognized the commitment and contributions of our ILSA alumni as well.”
During its first semester, students worked with the Ho-Chunk Nation, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, Judicare Legal Aid Indian Law Office and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Tribal Liaison; they also completed special project work for a variety of tribes outside of the state.
“When we have the opportunity to share the perspectives of people who are not often invited to legal discussions, we can facilitate discussions that further an understanding of what our country’s relationship with tribes has been, is now and could be.”
The externship, McBride said, provides students with the experience, exposure and appreciation necessary to contribute while also promoting access to justice across Wisconsin.
“The program provides students with a unique, hands-on opportunity to participate in the many facets of legal tribal practice, from litigation and research and writing to policy creation and implementation,” she said.
Under the direct supervision of clinical faculty and on-site tribal lawyers, students gain rare, firsthand experience working in the Native Nations legal community. This allows students to develop a clearer understanding of complex concepts of tribal law and sovereignty in an environment where they can apply it directly.
“This program puts students in the position to address legal issues—that most law school courses are silent on—as they happen,” added Kennedy Allison, who worked with the Lac Courte Oreilles Attorney General’s Office.
Allison, a second-year Law student, worked to make tribal statutes available online.
“Before this initiative, all of the statutes only existed in physical form, which made it difficult for most people to access them,” explained Allison. “My work primarily focused on reformatting and updating language on existing statutes to fit the new drafting guidelines.”
Allison also researched current tribal law, such as discourse on Tribal Sovereignty and how far it reaches, as well as litigation between the tribe and non-tribal entities.
Participants in the Native Nations Externship program meet weekly for a substantive tribal law seminar class that adds context and support to their externship assignments and introduces them to tribal lawyers, leaders, elders and UW Law alumni.
“Students see tribal law in action,” said McBride.
When asked about the students involved in the first year of the program, McBride said they’re “phenomenal.”
“I was continually impressed by their work ethic and drive, commitment to their placement sites and the mission of their respective offices, and the diversity and creativity they bring to class and their work each week,” she said.
“The students really have become members of the staff and contribute as such. It is the goal of the program that students walk away with a stronger understanding of the law and its applications, and we hope their work sites benefit from the students’ time and effort.”
Douglas Twait, Indian Law Office director for Judicare Legal Aid in Wausau, said his office “excitedly said yes” when invited to participate.
“The Law School is commended for having started this externship,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity, an excellent program and an important program. After brief conversations with Erin, we met Noah Lee, who was placed in our office, and it was a fantastic experience working together on a very important project.”
That project, Twait explained, involved Lee, a third-year Law student, helping the Wisconsin Tribal Judges Association and Wisconsin Tribal Clerk of Courts Association regain their nonprofit status, a difficult task.Lee sifted through more than 120 pages of material and “did a fantastic job” of putting together a memo outlining the history and next steps of the project.
“These are complex matters and for him to take the bull by the horn and master the subject matter was fantastic,” said Twait. “Those organizations are very pleased with his work, and we couldn’t be happier to have had a resource like him to help us with this project.”
Lee said the course was an “incredibly satisfying” opportunity to bridge a gap between his formal legal education and desire to work on behalf of tribal interests.
“I was happy to be assigned to the nonprofit status reinstatement project because it is useful for the Wisconsin Tribal Judges Association and Wisconsin Tribal Clerk of Courts Association, and those organizations are a critical resource to tribal justice systems in Wisconsin,” he explained.
Through the program, not only are students making a difference for the agencies they’re assisting, but they’re also building confidence in their skills and gaining deeper knowledge on tribal issues perhaps not previously encountered in the curriculum.
“This program puts students in the position to address legal issues—that most law school courses are silent on—as they happen.”
“And you can’t underestimate connections these students are making through this opportunity,” said Twait. “That high-level networking is imperative.”
McBride hopes the program increases students’ understanding of ethics, legal rules and principles that govern tribes and makes practicing in tribal law a career option.
“Students will graduate with the ability to envision themselves as in-house tribal attorneys, tribal judges or advocates because they’ve learned from those leaders,” she said.
Allison agreed the value of this program is “immeasurable.”
“The students participating in the program get work experience, extra exposure to a niche specialty, opportunities to make connections in the legal profession and to engage in a supportive and accepting community during class,” she said.
Students outside of the program also benefit from the experiences that participants then bring to their other classes, she added.
“When we have the opportunity to share the perspectives of people who are not often invited to legal discussions, we can facilitate discussions that further an understanding of what our country’s relationship with tribes has been, is now and could be,” Allison said.
More students have already expressed interest for upcoming semesters. Equally impressive, new and returning placement sites have already asked to host students in the future.
“The enthusiasm and effort I see from our Native Nations Externship students are matched if not exceeded by our on-site supervising attorneys,” said McBride. “I can’t thank these lawyers and leaders enough for their time, partnership and commitment to the students’ successes. We relish this partnership and connection to the Law School and see the depth it adds to our curriculum.”
“I can’t thank these lawyers and leaders enough for their time, partnership and commitment to the students’ successes. We relish this partnership and connection to the Law School and see the depth it adds to our curriculum.”
Developing the Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project
In the United States, the Constitution recognizes three types of sovereigns: federal, state and tribal. Yet, under the mainstream conception of American law, tribal law is often overlooked or impossible to find because it is unpublished. For Native Nations that wish to make their laws more accessible, University of Wisconsin Law School is working to develop a digital publishing solution that will help tribes enhance the power and visibility of their law and strengthen tribal sovereignty.
In 2020, the UW Law Library, in partnership with the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, the Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center, the National Indian Law Library, and the Open Law Library, received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop the Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project. In this project, librarians and developers work with Native Nations to openly publish their laws using a customized platform that offers tribes full ownership and control over their content.
Two Wisconsin tribes, the Stockbridge-Munsee and the Lac Courte Oreilles, have already published their laws using this platform and another is in development. Current and authenticated copies of these laws may also be incorporated into free, digital library collections at the National Indian Law Library and the UW Law School Digital Repository.
For more information, contact Associate Dean and Law Library Director Bonnie Shucha.
Illustrations by Caitlin Newago, Bad River Ojibwe