Indigenous Storytelling and Law Symposium speaks to optimism in uncertain times

On March 17 and 18, the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies at CU Boulder hosted Indigenous Storytelling and Law: An Interdisciplinary Symposium. This two-day seminar hosted a litany of talks and panels presented by prominent lawyers and activists. The subject matter varied from centuries-old native stories to legal perspectives on struggles for the fair treatment of indigenous peoples.

“The Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies is very interdisciplinary. We came together on a central topic. We wanted to bring together lawyers, activists and native peoples, and have a discussion,” coordinator of the symposium and CU Associate Professor Greg Johnson said.

The event concluded with the session “Indian Country and the Trump Administration: Law, Policy, and Activism,” held in a courtroom of CU’s Wolf Law Building. A panel of experts spoke before the audience, which constituted every walk of life, from elderly natives to Boulder professionals to schoolchildren playing on tablets aside their parents.

James Anaya, dean of the University of Colorado School of Law, opened the session with the topic of progress in the realm of Native law. He spoke to the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, a landmark document that extended legal status to indigenous people across the globe. Over the past decade Native Americans have seen great improvements in their well-being, as well as progress towards fair recognition due to documents. But, Anaya argued, with President Trump in office everything is momentarily up in the air.

“How will Trump regard the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People? Well, the best hope is that he doesn’t know about it,” joked Anaya. He concluded that, at least for the near future, the US Department of State will continue to make progress until instructed otherwise.

Another panelist, associate clinical professor and director of the Indian Law Clinic Carla Fredericks, focused on the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline, which is set to begin flow this coming week. The project was approved by an executive order signed by President Trump in January, reversing a previous order issued during the Obama administration delaying the construction until further environmental impact studies could be complete. Fredericks shook her head at the ordeal, calling it “a key failure in indigenous law.”

Troy Eid, a former US attorney, critiqued the operations of  corporations involved with DAPL as well as the state of North Dakota, speaking primarily to the “reckless strategy” of not consulting with local tribes in any regard. This critique led to a larger discussion centered on progress and optimism.

Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at CU Boulder, stressed the importance of seizing the uncharacteristic spotlight on Native struggles DAPL has provided in order to propagate further issues across the sound waves. The panelists felt little surprise towards Trump’s decision on the pipeline; decisions like these factor heavily in the study of Native American law. However, this does not mean they were easily dismayed.

The panelists discussed at length the importance of the present moment. Nearly ten percent of federal judiciary positions will be filled by Trump in the next six to nine months. Jennifer Widdle, a lawyer with a focus on American Indian law, said “Donald Trump is another ornery bull, but this isn’t our first rodeo.”

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Devlin Thieke at

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