Tribal policy courses needed


Jan. 29, 2018, H.R. 984 was signed into law, officially recognizing six Virginia Native American tribes as domestic dependent, self-governing nations. Tribal leaders, alongside senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, have worked tirelessly for two decades to pass this legislation, and it was an enormous achievement. I was thrilled to hear the news, but as I celebrated on social media I quickly realized that my peers at the College of William and Mary had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

The federal Indian trust responsibility is a foundational characteristic of America’s legal and political heritage, yet most students at the College have never heard of it. Of course, it’s not necessarily their fault — to my knowledge, it isn’t taught in public schools and isn’t featured in the AP Government or AP U.S. History curricula. It’s shocking, though, that students studying government, environmental policy, public policy and law can remain unaware of the basic principles of federal-tribal relations long after they’ve completed their university-level coursework at the College.

I’m surprised and disappointed that, unlike other top-notch universities, the College does not offer courses in tribal policy or federal Indian law in either its undergraduate or graduate programs.

Without the opportunity to study these subjects, students at the College, especially those studying law and government, are at a disadvantage. By overlooking this critical aspect of U.S. history, law and politics, the College is doing a disservice not only to its longstanding relationship with local tribal nations, but also to its own cherished identity as a historical liberal arts institution.

At the Undergraduate Level:
If you want to study tribal policy at the College, you have to get creative with course registration. There are 30 courses that count toward the new Native Studies minor — and if you include classes tangentially related to indigenous studies, a generous estimation might raise the number to 45 courses that may mention modern tribal policy at some point in a semester. There are no government or public policy classes that prominently feature federal Indian policy, state-tribal relations or Indian law in their course descriptions.

If you compare the College to another Public Ivy on the East Coast, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you’ll see that UNC Chapel Hill offers 52 native studies courses in its American Indian studies department alone, and 11 of these courses focus primarily on tribal politics, federal Indian law and indigenous political activism.

Brendan Thomas ’18 is graduating in May with a major in history and a minor in native studies, and he argues that the College should offer a broader set of indigenous studies courses.

“Anthropology has had a monopoly on Native Studies in (white) academia for a long time, but the anthropological perspective is certainly not the only, or indeed always the most valuable, method to study the Native experience,” Thomas wrote.

“The study of the Native experience should be as multifaceted and complex as Native people themselves are. A fully-fledged Native Studies program should incorporate courses on Literature, Film Studies, Government, Environmental Science, Sociology, and Law, and not just its traditional domain within the anthropology and history departments.”

Emily Williams ’18 is of Native Hawaiian and Diné (Navajo) descent, and she says students at the College must be aware of modern Native America regardless of their choice of study.
“We do not live in the past. We survive, and we assert our rights like anybody else through our culture and our sovereignty,” Williams wrote. “Letting the professionals we educate go on unprepared and unaware of American Indians fighting to thrive is disgraceful for such a well-reputed institution. Students and Natives alike deserve better.”

In my experience, I learned more about tribal policy in my Indigenous Literature class than a major’s worth of government courses could teach me. Luckily, many government and public policy professors have recognized this gap and are endeavoring to address it.

In his Intro to Public Policy class, government professor Lenneal Henderson teaches the evolution of the federal-tribal relationship and gives students an overview of both historical and modern Native-American policies. Other professors are trying to do the same.

However, with an enormous amount of material to cover and limited time in the semester, it’s difficult to properly and thoroughly examine the subject, leaving several critical aspects of tribal policy unexplored and undiscussed.

At the Graduate Level:

According to Marshall-Wythe Foundation Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Human Security Law Center Linda Malone, most law schools consider it a given to offer courses in federal Indian law.

“Federal Indian law is not geographically limited to schools west of the Mississippi — it is relevant, and it has expanded,” Malone said in a phone interview.

The subject of Indian law regularly comes up in Malone’s environmental land use and constitutional law courses, and she and other professors at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law Studies shared that they encountered federal Indian law in their careers prior to teaching at the College. Despite its significance and relevance, courses in Indian law have never been offered at the College’s law school, and there are currently no plans in place to do so. The same is true for the College’s public policy program.

“William and Mary has a long history with local tribes, so it would be very natural to have these opportunities. It would be a tremendous public service to offer a course in Indian law, and there is a great deal in students’ interest to take an Indian law class,” Malone said.
Whether you study anthropology, environmental policy, political science, international relations, health or education, odds are that you will encounter federal Indian law or tribal policy in some capacity at least once in your career. Even as an intern in the U.S Department of State’s Bureau of Public Affairs —an office many would consider definitively unrelated to tribal policy — I encountered federal tribal consultation policies, country-tribal-state jurisdictional battles, international discussions on Alaska Native whaling rights and national security conversations about nuclear waste storage on tribal lands.

The identity of the United States is inextricably linked to its history as a settler-colonial nation built on indigenous homelands. The College would benefit by expanding its course offerings to incorporate more Native studies courses, especially in the realm of tribal policy and law.

Email Mackenzie Neal at


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