Spring break trip to Alaska provides ASU students with firsthand look at Indigenous law

Alaskan snowy landscape

It was not your typical spring break. There were no trips to a beautiful beach or movie-watching marathons.

Instead, a group of 29 Arizona State University law students packed their parkas and took off to Alaska for a course in Indigenous law as part of ASU’s Indian Legal Program.

“The trip proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some of our students,” said Stacy Leeds, Willard H. Pedrick Dean and Regents Professor of Law at the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

The course, titled Alaska Native Legal Issues and Solutions, was created by Leeds and Alex Cleghorn, senior legal and policy director at the Alaska Native Justice Center. It took place from March 6–10 in Anchorage, Alaska. 

ASU’s Indian Legal Program, one of the most respected in the country, has conducted traveling classrooms since 2010.

Past spring break trips have been to Nebraska and taught by Professor Lance Morgan at HoChunk Inc., the business enterprise of the Winnebago Tribe. This was the first to Alaska. 

According to Leeds, most of the literature in federal Indian law minimizes or entirely fails to address the Alaska Native experience.

The trip offered law students insights into some of the most complex legal and political issues of our time, she said.

Students learned about everything from criminal and civil jurisdiction to the area’s world-class intertribal health system. The class tapped into the expertise of local attorneys, business leaders and government officials.

Cleghorn helped co-teach the course and secured local experts as guest speakers. The Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Southeastern Foundation tribal nonprofits provided classroom space and technical assistance. Cook Inlet Region Inc., an Alaska Native regional corporation, hosted a reception for students to meet attorneys and business leaders. 

“For many, the course was both intellectually and emotionally challenging because it unpacked so many conflicts, injustices and tensions,” Leeds said. “Every single participant grew in their understanding of Indian law and in their exposure to the diverse perspectives and unique lived experiences of Alaska Native communities and individuals.”

Exploring legal land rights

Land is a consistent legal issue for most Native American tribes, and central to the course were discussions about the complex legal issues that flow from Congress’ 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which extinguished Native Alaska land claims and abolished tribes’ legal claims to the land in Alaska, and instead conveyed 45.5 million acres to newly created regional Alaska Native corporations. This differs from land ownership patterns in the lower 48 states under the reservation model and other tribal land tenure systems.

“It was very eye-opening for our students to learn about Alaska’s rich history and see how the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act changed the landscape for tribes in Alaska,” said Kathlene Rosier, assistant dean for community engagement and executive director of ASU Law’s Indian Legal Program, who took part in the trip. “The students were able to compare the differences between tribal structures and land claims in the lower 48 states.” 

Second-year law student Clayton Kinsey said he appreciates the opportunity to go on ASU Law trips. 

“This was basically a semester's worth of Alaska Native issues and solutions packed into one week,” said Kinsey, who plans to get an Indian Law Certificate at ASU along with a law degree. 

Kinsey was surprised to learn that for the 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, there are limited rights to hunt and fish. 

“Many of these people survived on hunting caribou, whaling and fishing for salmon, trout and other fish,” Kinsey said. “So, in a way, there was no established right for many of these people to continue their way of life.”

Ravynn Nothstine, a third-year student who grew up in Alaska, was able to stay with family and participate in traditional Alaska Native dancing while she was there. She knew about the settlement act most of her life but the trip, combined with her studies at ASU Law, gave her a new perspective. 

“My understanding was deepened,” Nothstine said. “I learned a lot more about the nuances of the law. And since I am a bit more legally trained, I now have a better understanding of how it works.” 

Maryam Salazar, a second-year law student, described the trip as amazing.

“What mostly resonated with me was applying a forward-looking approach to changing legislation instead of relying on legislative history to advocate for Native peoples,” Salazar said. 

“We were exposed to many different perspectives on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that allowed me to see the creativity of self-determination and how tribes and the corporations can use different approaches to reach their needs.

“I don't think there is a perfect way to go about things, but I've been digesting these new approaches and thinking about possibilities for Indian policy.”

Leeds said that without the support of the local community, her students wouldn’t have had this rare opportunity.

“We are so grateful for the extended legal and business community in Alaska — especially for Alex Cleghorn, who leads the Alaska Native Justice Center, and Gloria O’Neill, CEO of Cook Inlet Tribal Council Inc. — who came to together to make this possible,” she said.

Photos courtesy Ravynn Nothstine, Maryam Salazar and Clayton Kinsey

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