Federal Indian Law Practicum: A Study in Resilience, Ancestral Traditions, and Human Rights

Sam George, a member of the Cayuga Nation and client of the Federal

For hundreds of years, consensus has been the accepted mode of decision making in the Cayuga Nation. The Clan Mothers and Chiefs debate issues, allow all sides to be heard and come to consensus. That process stands in contrast to the adversarial nature of litigation and majority rule typical of American government. Dealing with that contradiction is the first challenge for law students in the Federal Indian Law Practicum at Cornell Law School.

“We are essentially litigating their right to be consensus-based,” says Danica Murthy ‘24. “It’s not a zero-sum game where someone has to win and someone has to lose. Their goal is to achieve a peaceful method of dispute resolution.” For Murthy, the practicum brings into focus the concept of comity: how to work with different legal systems to achieve due process and fairness.

“That’s the essential struggle we are involved in,” says “Joe” Heath, adjunct professor, explaining how the law can best be used to help solve long-time societal conflicts and ongoing clashes between tribal traditionalists and a Cayuga government structure that employs Anglo-style tactics enforced by non-Indigenous police and judges. “The work our students are doing has political, social, and cultural components that are, perhaps, even more important than the legal work.”

Michael Sliger ’08, adjunct professor and an attorney for tribes and tribal organizations, says the students in the practicum are passionate, committed, and extraordinarily skilled. “They have top-notch legal training, and they are using it to do something meaningful for Indigenous peoples’ lives. It’s important that this work gets done, especially given that the university is on Cayuga Nation territory.”

Federal Indian Law (the term “Indian” is a legal descriptive for the Indigenous peoples who lived in North America at the time of European colonization) reconciles an Indigenous tribe or nation’s sovereign authority to govern themselves, subject to overriding federal authority and various federal statutes that deal with Indian rights and governance. “We have dozens of issues we are working on at any given time, and it’s all very high stakes,” says Sliger. “There are some tribal factions that target their citizenship, particularly those that they consider political opposition. Their tactics are brutal—disenrollment, banishment, imprisonment, assault, and constant surveillance. Sovereignty was never meant to be used against your own people, and we cannot turn a blind eye to these injustices.”

Erin Elliott ’24

“This practicum has taught me, more than anything else in law school or in internships, how to be a lawyer,” says Erin Elliott ’24. “It has a pretty rigorous writing component, and the professors are very detail oriented; they treat students like law firm associates. They are excellent coaches that demand your best and provide every tool in helping you reach your potential as a writer and legal researcher.”

“Every single law student should study Federal Indian Law,” says Katlin Bowers ’23, who is pursuing a career in corporate law and is now a law clerk in the New York City office of Debevoise & Plimpton. Bowers took all relevant classes available at Cornell and two semesters of the practicum. “There’s an intersection of issues that creates a well-rounded legal education, from business law and its application to casinos, to property law and its application to evictions, to constitutional law and its application to sovereignty rights, to human rights and the relationships between federal, state governments, and tribal governments.”

Bowers grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and is a tribal citizen of the Cherokee nation. She felt deeply connected to that tribal community, but her studies in law school opened her eyes to the expansive nature of tribal law. “There are 574 federally recognized tribes,” says Bowers. “Tribal law is not a monolith; the tribes have disagreements on how their communities should be run. Some are more modernist. Some are more traditionalist. I gained a deep understanding and appreciation for the diversity of traditions and tribal law and how the issues intersect with corporate law.”