September 16, 2014

First of its kind: TU Indian Law program tailored for non-lawyers

TULSA, Okla. – It will not make you into a lawyer, but a new degree program through the University of Tulsa’s College of Law could help individuals shape Native determination legal issues for years to come.

The college began offering the online Master of Jurisprudence in Indian Law degree program in the fall of 2011. Beginning with 10 students, the program enrolled 25 new students for the fall 2012 semester and is taking applications for next spring.

Shonday Harmon, program director for the MJIL program, said it is the first master’s graduate level program of its kind in Indian law.

“The inception of the program came about from area tribes contacting the Native American law center asking for professional development courses,” Harmon, Muscogee-Creek, said. “There was a need for non attorneys to understand the legalese of Indian law.”

The program requires the completion of 30 hours of graduate course work in subjects ranging from civil and criminal jurisdiction on Indian land to gaming law, property rights and the child welfare act. As tribes throughout the country assert Native sovereignty through economic, social and policy means, the intricacies of Indian law become apparent.

Indian law is unique, said G. William Rice, co-director of the Native American Law Center at the TU College of Law, because of the relationship between tribes and the federal government and because of the trust status the U.S. has assumed regarding Indian people.

If you’re enrolled in a federally-recognized Native American tribe, are employed by one, live on tribal property or do business with a Native-owned or affiliated business, Indian law affects you.

“A classic example is a social worker, police officer or other entities doing business with tribes. If they don’t understand the legalities unique to tribes, they can make significant mistakes and open themselves up to liability,” Rice said. “… People need to know the legal facts in which they are operating.”

Headlines of the court custody battle for a Cherokee child, a Broken Arrow neighborhood’s stance against a proposed Indian gaming facility and tribes fighting for access to sacred sites all attest to the complexity and reach of such laws.

“It seems to me that it’s a program answering a need, really,” Rice said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve seen trials where the staff and officers needed information and just didn’t have access to it.”

TU’s law school offers a Juris Doctorate degree program with more than 300 students enrolled. Candidates can study for a formal Indian law certificate. The master of jurisprudence in Indian law, however, is a study of law theory.  Rice and his colleagues at the Native American Law Center developed the curriculum to make it accessible to people from many professional fields who need to know the workings of Indian law. For that reason, the online program has attracted a broad spectrum of students.

Harmon said there is a total of 44 students enrolled in the program. Among them, 24 tribes from 15 states are represented as well as one from Canada. Many are Native, but others are not. Some work for tribes, others are business owners hoping to work with a tribe. Some are grant writers for organizations, some hold political office or work for tribes while others are practicing attorneys expanding their knowledge of Indian law.

The interactive online platform, which allows students to watch the lectures either live or recorded, makes it possible for many to stay where they live and continue working full-time. Faculty are also available for advisement.

For Cynthia Mae Tiger of Bixby, the online classes are making it possible for her to work toward a degree that will help her improve her small business, Tiger 2 Tiger, LLC, while she works and takes care of her family. Tiger, a single mother, is a grant writer/reviewer and independent project management consultant. She is particularly interested in Indian law focused on economic development, land and property rights and natural resources.

Tiger, Muscogee-Creek/Absentee Shawnee/Euchee, said the knowledge she is learning in her classes and reading is valuable to her success.

“This course helps (me) to understand the obstacles of owning a business in Indian country,” she said.

For students enrolled on a part-time basis, the course is designed to be completed in about five to six semesters.

Because the program is so new (its first students are expected to graduate in the spring) the faculty is careful to make too many adjustments to the curriculum at this time, but they do foresee improvements to the technology making the online platform more interactive for instructors and students.

Harmon said the school looks to enroll more students in the spring 2013 semester as word spreads about the MJIL degree program.

“Our hope is that it will be useful to Indian self-determination and that it will be a benefit for people on a day-to-day basis,” he said.



Cynthia Tiger watches a recorded online lecture from G. William Rice, co-director of the American Law Center at the University of Tulsa College of Law, at her home in Bixby. Tiger is studying for a master of jurisprudence in Indian Law degree, to learn more about environmental and property law as pertains to tribal-owned land. KAREN SHADE | NATIVE AMERICAN TIMES PHOTO

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