Aug. 2, 2023 – Several Wisconsin-based entities are working together to increase public access to American Indian tribal laws – and their efforts are drawing national attention.
The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) has awarded the 2023 Public Access to Government Information Award to the Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project.
The project was developed jointly by the University of Wisconsin Law Library, the National Indian Law Library, the Open Law Library, the U.W. Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians.1
The right to know the laws by which people are governed is a fundamental right in a democratic society. Access to laws is essential to protect and promote due process and equal protection, access to justice, and tribal self-governance. However, for a majority of the 574 federally recognized American Indian tribes, no laws have been published. Those Tribal laws that are published are scattered across databases, websites, and print publications, and are often incomplete and outdated.
This lack of access to tribal law negatively affects Native Nations and their members, hinders nonmembers’ partnerships with tribes, and limits general understanding of tribal sovereignty and perspectives. The Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project addresses this vital need for improved public access to tribal laws.
In this pilot project, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, developers worked with Native Nations to make their laws publicly available using a customizable publishing platform that offers tribes full ownership and control over their content.
Several tribes, including Wisconsin’s Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians and Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, have already openly published their laws using this platform and several others are in development.2
Bonnie Shucha, U.W. 2014, is associate dean and library director at the U.W. Law School, Madison.
This platform also enables libraries to partner with tribes in providing public access to current, authenticated copies of these laws through free digital collections. These collections, which automatically incorporate laws as they are updated by tribes, will enable library users to simultaneously search the current laws of multiple participating tribes.
Using metadata standards and code developed by and for the National Indian Law Library’s Tribal Law Gateway and the University of Wisconsin Law School Digital Repository (tribal law collection coming soon), other libraries will soon be able to curate their own federated tribal law collections with tribal partners at no cost using the library platform developed by the Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project.
Project partners are reaching out to tribal leaders, legal professionals, and librarians to share information about and encourage participation in the project. Project partners have presented at meetings of the American Association of Law Libraries, WestPac, National American Indian Court Judges Association, Wisconsin Tribal Judges Association, and Oklahoma Bar Association. In July, partners presented the project in a deep-dive session titled “Recognizing the Third Sovereign: Promoting Awareness of, Respect for, and Access to Native American Tribal Law” at the AALL Annual Meeting in Boston.
Too often, tribal law is excluded from the understanding of “American law,” leading to the marginalization of Native communities and the invisibility of their governance structures. Many law librarians recognize the imperative need to expand the conception of American law to encompass the work and experiences of tribal nations. We believe that the Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project will help tribes enhance the power and visibility of their law and empower libraries to provide public access to these important sources of law.
For more information about the project, contact Bonnie Shucha, associate dean and director of the UW Law Library.
Also of Interest
State Bar of Wisconsin Indian Law Section
The Indian Law Section provides a forum for both government and private attorneys with interests in the field of Indian law. The section fosters the relationship between attorneys and others involved with legal issues of concern to American Indians and tribal governments. It also sponsors CLE seminars at State Bar conventions and publishes a newsletter. Section dues are free to all first-year attorneys. To learn more about the section’s activities, see the section's annual report on Wisbar.org. Visit wisbar.org/indian for information on joining the section.
11th Annual Indian Law CLE, Aug. 17-18, 2023
Join practitioners in Indian law and those seeking to learn more about this broad field of practice at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center – Oneida in Green Bay, Aug. 17-18, 2023. To learn more and to register, visit marketplace.wisbar.org.
1 For more information about these entities, see: University of Wisconsin Law Library; National Indian Library; Open Law Library; UW-Madison Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center; Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians.
2 See Stockbridge-Munsee Tribal Law Library; Lac Courte Oreilles Law Library.