Program that trains scholars in Indian law celebrates 35 years
When William C. Canby Jr. looks back at Arizona State University’s Indian Legal Program's humble beginnings, he openly marvels at how far it has come.
“When I first came to ASU, the law school had six professors on staff and our faculty meetings were held at a small table at a hotel coffee shop on Apache Boulevard,” said Canby, a senior judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and a founding faculty member of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the Indian Legal Program.
“It’s become quite an institution since then," he said. "This program has grown in so many ways. They have more resources, there’s more outreach and they are attracting great students to practice Indian law to populations around the country. I’ve been so lucky to see it come to fruition.”
Canby was the centerpiece of the Indian Legal Program’s 35th anniversary, which kicked off with his Nov. 9 presentation “Indian Law Today and Tomorrow, From a Long-Term Perspective.” His lecture was part of a three-day celebration that included a legal education session, dinner and silent auction, and a golf tournament to raise money for a variety of student scholarships and endowments.
“The ILP is proud to honor Judge Canby through this annual law school lecture,” said Kate Rosier, executive director of the Indian Legal Program. “Judge Canby, a founding faculty member of the law school, was the first person to teach Indian law at ASU. Through his teaching and his early partnerships with tribal governments, he laid the foundation for the strong program we have become.”
The annual lecture was started in 2007 to honor the 92-year-old Canby, who served two years as an U.S. Air Force judge, clerked for Associate Justice Charles Evans Whittaker on the U.S. Supreme Court, spent a few years in the Peace Corps in Africa, was a special assistant to Sen. Walter Mondale, and was an assistant to Harris Wofford, president of State University of New York at Old Westbury. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Canby to the Ninth Circuit Court.
“Judge Canby is a giant in Indian law as he was the second person in the United States to teach Indian Law at a university,” said Robert J. Miller, faculty director of the Rosette LLP American Indian Economic Development Program and a professor at ASU Law. “He has visited tribes around the state and got them to work with ASU. His book, 'American Indian Law in a Nutshell,' has been read by every law school student and judge in the field, which is going into its eighth edition. He is also the founding member of the leading Indian law program in the country, and is still going strong.”
Canby said he stumbled upon his legal niche fortuitously, and quite by accident.
“I was hired by Dean Willard H. Pedrick, who had been at ASU for a year and trying to get things set up. I was told to get here by July 1, so he could go on vacation but have someone watching the shop while he was away. He was going to make me acting associate dean for a month,” Canby said. “I wasn’t here but a week when someone from the regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs came to Tempe. He wanted to bring tribal judges from Arizona, Utah and Nevada here and have someone give them a day’s instruction to give them some general instruction on law. I said, ‘I’ll do it.’”
Canby and the judges met eight to nine times a year for several years. In 1971, Warren Cohen joined the faculty, and together, the duo created the informal Office of Indian Law. Under this name, they began to increase outreach and foster relationships with tribes, often funding their activities from their own pockets. The relationship grew and tribes began to seek out advice and guidance from the program.
“Judge Canby saw a need with tribes with their codes and their courts and he agreed to meet with them on these issues and worked with their communities,” said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, Indian Legal Program faculty director and a clinical professor of law. “He saw a need for public service to tribal governance and he met it. Ever since then, the ILP has hired dedicated faculty to educate Native students and others who are interested in Indian law.”