Students, professors reflect on Yale Law School’s expanded Federal Indian Law course offerings
Law School professors and students spoke with the News about the significance of Federal Indian Law studies as Yale began offering advanced courses in 2022.
Madelyn Kumar, Senior Photographer
Before coming to Yale Law School, Lexie Holden LAW ’25 (Choctaw Nation) worked on advancing the interests of Tribal Nations and their members through policy and advocacy.
Prior to submitting her application to Yale Law School, Holden spoke with members of the Native American Law Students Association. During these interactions, she said she gained valuable insights into their experiences and the Federal Indian Law course offerings at the Law School. Holden said that this information played a crucial role in her decision to attend Yale Law School.
“Choosing a school that had multiple Federal Indian Law courses was critical to making sure that what I wanted to do on the ground lined up with what I learned in the classroom,” Holden told the News.
According to the Native American Rights Fund, Federal Indian Law is defined as the body of U.S. law — including treaties, statutes, executive orders, administrative decisions and court cases — that shape the “unique legal and political status”of federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. This area of American law oversees the relationship of these tribes with the government.
For at least 20 years, Yale Law School has offered an introductory course on Federal Indian Law. In 2022, Yale Law School also began offering advanced courses due to increased interest, according to data provided by Alden Ferro, a spokesperson for Yale Law School. Yale Law School has also previously offered a Saginaw-Chippewa Disenrollment Clinic where students could assist in fighting for the rights of members of Michigan’s Saginaw-Chippewa Tribe.
“In general, the world has begun to at long last look at what the colonizing nations did to the Indigenous peoples of the world,” Stephen Pevar, a visiting lecturer in Law who currently teaches Advanced Federal Indian Law: Contemporary Issues, told the News. “These [new] courses reflect growing concern and interest in learning about what happened to the indigenous peoples and what rights they have.”
Pevar told the News that upon the establishment of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, the U.N. formally acknowledged the historical injustice perpetrated by European countries during the colonization of Indigenous peoples. This recognition, he said, underscored the importance for successors of colonizing nations around the world to address their past wrongs and to incorporate Indigenous rights into their society through laws and policies.
He also spoke about how Federal Indian Law has gained a great deal of interest within the legal field in recent years.
“Within the last 20 years, entire law firms have been built to the legal assistance of Indian tribes,” he said.
Pevar used Indian gaming operations, which comprises all gambling operations within Indian reservations and tribal lands, as an example. According to Pevar, last year gaming tribes generated 40 billion dollars in income as a result of contracts between tribes and casino vendors.
He also said that many students in his class are drawn to the subject because they have been directly impacted by Federal Indian Law. One of his students, Meghanlata Gupta ’21 LAW ’25 (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians), highlighted the significance of learning Federal Indian Law.
“I think Federal Indian Law is incredibly important and I think it’s an integral part of a legal education,” Gupta told the News. “Federal Indian law encompassess every sort of law that you can think of with just the lens of tribal communities, tribal nations and Native peoples.”
According to Gupta, many law professors have told her that an entire 1L curriculum could be formed solely with Federal Indian Law classes. To her, the suggestion illustrates the importance of Federal Indian Law as a whole to the legal field due to the wide array of subjects it covers.
She also spoke about why, in her view, all law students should be exposed to Federal Indian Law.
“We are all going to be interacting with Native people or Native communities in some way, and Federal Indian Law really requires a unique set of skills and approaches and questions that are really important to learn about,” she said.
Gupta mentioned her work over the summer with National Public Radio, where she reported on the Supreme Court. She said she worked alongside Nina Totenberg, NPR’s American legal affairs correspondent, on cases that went up to the Court. She called it an “incredible experience.”
Gupta said she was particularly affected by the Haaland v. Bracken case which involved the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.
On June 15, the Supreme Court upheld ICWA in a 7-2 ruling. The federal law gives tribal governments jurisdiction in the proceedings of Native children on tribal lands during child custody cases. In the Court’s majority opinion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett asserted that ICWA was constitutional. The Court further emphasized that it was permissible for the federal government to regulate family law matters in the realm of Federal Indian Law.
“Congress’s power to legislate with respect to Indians is well established and broad, even when it impacts family law, an area that is primarily a state responsibility,” Barrett wrote in the majority opinion. “It is true that Congress lacks general power over domestic relations … but the Constitution does not erect a firewall around family law.”
Pevar underscored the significance of the ICWA ruling, highlighting that a majority of cases involving Indian tribes brought before the Supreme Court have historically ended in losses. According to Pevar, over the past 50 years, more than 80 percent of such cases have resulted in unfavorable outcomes for Indian tribes.
He emphasized that among scholars of Federal Indian Law, it is a well-known understanding that Supreme Court decisions often lean against the tribes. According to Pevar, the recent decision stands out as particularly noteworthy given this context.
“A 7-2 ruling was pretty amazing, particularly in this case,” he said.
Another Yale Law School professor, Gerald Torres LAW ’77, who teaches the introductory Federal Indian Law course, emphasized how studying Federal Indian Law can push students to see the limitations of the Courts’ various interpretations of constitutional disputes.
He also added that he believes Federal Indian Law is essential to understanding Constitutional law.
“I think studying Federal Indian Law sheds light on various areas of American and international law,” Torres wrote in an email to the News. “Trying to weave doctrinal coherence out of the law provides a window into legal reasoning and the nature of judicial decisions that may be unique.”
In 1778, the United States ratified a treaty with the Lenape Tribe of Delaware — its first treaty with a Native American tribe.
Correction, Nov. 30: A previous version of this article incorrectly explained the majority opinion in Haaland v. Bracken. The article has been updated accordingly.