Urges Schools To Teach Treaty Law

April 30, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — When he arrived to speak at the offices of Warner Norcross and Judd last month, Bill Mills was still smiling at some memories.

He had come to Grand Rapids directly from an induction ceremony at the University of Kansas where he, Jim Ryun and Glenn Cunningham were inducted into the school’s track and field Hall of Fame, along with Al Oerter.

Ryun, Cunningham and Mills were distance runners who, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, made the university’s annual relays the place to compete. They were gold medalists in the Olympics. Likewise, Oerter — a KU discus thrower — brought home the gold from three Olympiads and qualified for a fourth.

But if that induction brought Mills some happy memories — he was the first American ever to win the Olympics’ 10,000-meter gold medal — he told the Business Journal in his quiet way that he still feels in the midst of another much longer and more difficult race.

He’s trying to find some way to end the federal government’s conflict with itself about American Indian law.

Mills, an Oglala Sioux who is a native of the Wounded Knee area of South Dakota, is a motivational speaker by occupation.

But he said one of his key personal goals is to make the nation’s legal community more deeply aware of the inherent conflict between the sovereignty of local and federal governments on one hand, and the Indian tribal sovereignty on the other.

Basically, he said, the history of violations of American Indian sovereignty will never end until the federal government — which on one hand defines Indian tribal sovereignty — quits doing violence to its own definitions on the other.

For instance, he points out, ordinary civil rights laws — generally seen as benevolent and helpful to minority groups — actually conflict in dozens of ways with tribal law and tear at tribal fabric.

And by tribal law, he said he’s referring not only to federal statutes and the regulations that grow out of them, but also to the body of customs and internal tribal self-regulation that federal law supposedly exists to protect, but routinely violates.

He told the Business Journal that American Indians suffer little from the overt prejudice that afflicts other minority groups.

Moreover, he said, there’s genuine national interest in and respect for Indian culture, even though there’s little understanding of it.

But Anglo interest — and even love and compassion — he stressed, don’t begin to address the conflicts inherent in federal law concerning tribal sovereignty.

He pointed out that 5 percent to 20 percent of the cases that go before the U.S. Supreme Court involve American Indian sovereignty and treaty rights.

“And, of course, all the rest of the cases involve us, too, because we’re Americans.”

Among the kinds of things Native Americans find maddening, he said, is that the U.S. government somehow is unable to account for billions of dollars it is supposed to have held in trust for them.

“That kind of thing gets maybe a paragraph in the media,” he added.

“When you find an oil company cheating a tribe out of millions and millions of dollars of oil — and the federal government and corporations profit from it — it just never makes the media.”

None of this will change, he believes, until the bar examinations of all 50 states include Indian law as an examination subject.

It’s been nearly 40 years, he said, since the University of New Mexico School of Law brought the subject of Indian law into its own curriculum.

A half dozen others universities have done the same since then, he said. “But there are Native American tribes and federal treaties governing them in all 50 states,” he said.

“All these young attorneys and law students should take Indian law,” he added.

The fundamental problem American Indians face, he said, is the same all people do — the need to belong. “Social beings, and I mean all of us, need to belong, and if our need to belong is violated, we react. That’s why you find teen pregnancy, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide, and even mass murder sometimes.”

Because of he was orphaned early and spent his late teens in Kansas away from his Dakota relatives and tribal culture, Mills said he was oppressed — even in moments of victory — by an overwhelming sense of alienation.

That ended, however, when he became a part of that large meritocracy called the United States Marine Corps. Mills attained the rank of captain while training for his record-setting Olympics gold medal victory.

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