Leeds discusses sovereignty in Canby Lecture

Leeds discusses sovereignty in Canby Lecture

Stacy L. Leeds

Stacy L. Leeds, Dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law, explored how foundational principles of tribal sovereignty have developed domestically and how those principles may evolve in the future, in the Sixth Annual William C. Canby Jr. Lecture, “Whose Sovereignty? Tribal Citizenship, Federal Indian Law, and Globalization.”

The Lecture, named for Canby, a founding faculty member and judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was held on Jan. 24 in the Great Hall of Armstrong Hall.

Leeds said that in many historical cases, international law played a role in redefining tribal sovereign status in the United States, including issues of internal and external government accountability, interaction with other nations, and enforcement of tribal rights.

“Indian law relied on international customary law for its origin and involves the interpretation of treaties between two sovereigns,” Leeds said. “But it is still considered a matter of domestic federal law only.”
For a period of about 175 years, beginning in the early 1830s, the domestic Indian law discussion was silent, according to Leeds. Then in 2010, President Obama announced support for the United Nations’ Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“We were told Indian law was somehow different because the United States would never bind itself or even make reference to international law or norms,” Leeds said.

For years, the U.S. government has refused to recognize tribal sovereign powers while simultaneously endorsing and supporting similar powers in newly created sovereigns around the globe, Leeds said. However, she noted, we are starting to see positive change as international law plays a greater role within the United States.

“Tribes were always considered pre-constitutional or extra-constitutional, yet Congress is somehow allowed to exercise preliminary authority to legislate limitations on internal tribal government powers,” Leeds said.

According to Leeds, there are potential allies and advocates all over the world who want to see tribal sovereignty and, in particular, tribal courts recognized on par with other sovereigns. However, she said, the biggest obstacle might be whether tribes are willing to play by the same international rules if granted international statue.

“Enhanced global recognition of tribal government stature is finally being realized to some extent,” Leeds said in an earlier interview. “But it will necessarily open tribes up to more internal and external scrutiny, and communities have to be ready for that.”

Professor Myles Lynk, Faculty Fellow for the Center for Law, Science and Innovation, in introducing Leeds, said that the subject of her lecture could not be more timely or important.
“The subject of tribal citizenship was a deciding issue in a recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit,” Lynk said.

Robert Clinton, Foundation Professor of Law, said Leeds has been a pioneer as a Native American scholar and author, and her contributions to the field of Indian law are widely respected.

“Stacy has long been a leader in education and tribal government,” Clinton said. “At a time when the Cherokee Freedman controversy was heating up at the Cherokee Nation, her courageous opinion for the Cherokee Nation’s Supreme Court was widely heralded, although controversial.”

Before arriving at the University of Arkansas, Leeds was Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Kansas School of Law and director of the Northern Plains Indian Law Center at the University of North Dakota School of Law. She has taught law at the University of Kansas, the University of North Dakota and the University of Wisconsin School of Law.

Leeds was the first woman and youngest person to serve as a justice on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court. She teaches, writes and consults in the areas of American Indian law, property, energy and natural resources, economic development, judicial administration and higher education.

As part of the larger discussion, Leeds touched briefly on the Cherokee Freedman Controversy, a political and tribal dispute between the Cherokee Nation and descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen regarding tribal citizenship.

Webcast Archive at: online.law.asu.edu/events/2013/canby