In the course of a professional career spanning almost four decades, Robert A. Williams, Lumbee, has profoundly changed federal Indian law and spearheaded a movement that makes it easier for American Indians and Alaska Natives to study law, according to his students, who are immoderate in their praise of him. His students were instrumental in nominating him for the Federal Bar Association Indian Law Section’s Lawrence R. Baca Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Federal Indian Law. The award will be presented on April 7 at the 42nd Annual Federal Bar Association Indian Law Conference.
“My former students really are important members of the federal Indian bar. They sit on positions of influence. They’re leaders in the field. So it made the honor all that more humbling and wonderful that my students had a big role in nominating me,” said Williams, who is the E. Thomas Sullivan Professor of Law and Faculty Chair of the University of Arizona Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program.
Daune Cardenas, Pasqua Yaqui Tribe, is working on her JD in the program: “Rob pushes the envelope to make you think about what he’s saying not just to recite it and memorize it, but to really internalize it. You leave his classroom and you think about it for four or five days, maybe a month, maybe the rest of your life.”
The University of Arizona has the only school in the U.S. that offers all three law degrees, (JD, LLM, and SJD), as well as a Masters of Legal Studies, with a concentration in indigenous people’s law, said Williams, explaining that the IPLP Program has awarded graduate degrees to more than 100 Native lawyers all around the world. The University of Arizona law school has about 450 students, with about 130 entering each year; typically, 10 to 13 of those are Native American students.
The IPLP is currently representing the Navajo Nations Human Rights Commission in a petition filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights regarding the Snowbowl ski area in Flagstaff, Arizona, and providing technical support and assistance for the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ visit the first week in March to Navajo to examine mineral resources and extraction.
Williams explains that tribes go to international courts when their own government has failed them. “You turn to international law after you’ve lost; it’s out of desperation when the Supreme Court has failed indigenous people who have claims and issues. That’s what’s going on with DAPL in North Dakota, it’s what’s going on with land and the border wall.”
He is counting on the “leadership of young Native attorneys throughout Indian country in all sorts of different settings, whether it’s the federal government or working for tribes or working for non-profits. It really is an incredible cohort of young Native attorneys out there on the front lines,” he said.
Michelle Cook, Diné, is finishing up her SJD at the University of Arizona. She has known Williams for some dozen years, having met him when she was 20 and he first encouraged her to study law. “He truly is a visionary. His influence on federal Indian law is incredibly important. He has worked to integrate human rights into federal Indian law. He taught his students to understand federal Indian law through a long scope of history that reaches all the way back to the Romans so that we can understand where the framework and the concepts of federal Indian law originate, so we can understand how those concepts have continued to influence the law.”
One of Williams major contributions, she said, is that he convinced the University of Arizona to be the first law school to accept GRE scores as criteria for admission, instead of the LSAT. Harvard Law School, she said, has just followed suit, which means other law schools will have to as well.
“For years and years the LSAT has been the sole gateway into law school. It’s been a very, very narrow gateway into legal education.” The LSAT costs $500 to take; in order to do well you usually need to take a preparation course, which runs around $1,500, she explained. “We have a lot of people of color who may not have those resources, so the [much less expensive] GRE provides another avenue.”
The change, she said, will allow more Indian people to have access to legal education in the U.S. “because we certainly need more Native legal warriors. That is a very big deal.”
Equally important is the question of who those young warriors will argue before. Asked about President Donald Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to serve on the Supreme Court, Williams said, “If you read his opinions on Indian law, I’d have been hard pressed to name two or three better appointees for Indian interests. He has been incredibly sensitive. He really gets it. He understands tribal sovereignty. He gives you a fair break even on the opinions that maybe he didn’t side with you on. His opinions are strong and the commentary in the Indian press has been very favorable… I don’t think you’re going to hear a lot of stuff from Indian tribes on Gorsuch. Just like you didn’t hear a lot of stuff on [Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke. He’s another guy who’s shown his bona fides on these issues. There seems to be a consensus, I’m not saying it’s unanimous, but I think the consensus in Indian country is we can live with these two appointees and it could have been a lot worse.”
Williams is the author of The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest(1990), Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600-1800 (1997), Like a Loaded Weapon: The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights and the Legal History of Racism in America (2005), and Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) and co-author of the 6th edition of Federal Indian Law: Cases and Materials (2011), as well as dozen of articles in professional law journals.
He will soon be traveling to Mexico to research what he said will be his last book, a history of federal Indian law as Western civilization’s greatest racial formation project beginning with the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Williams earned his bachelor’s at Loyola College in 1977 and his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1980; he served as the first Oneida Indian Nation Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School in 2003-2004. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants from such organizations as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.
He has represented tribal groups before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, the Supreme Courts of the U.S. and Canada. He has served as a justice the Courts of Appeals for the Pascua Yaqui Indian Tribe, the Yavapai-Prescott Apache Tribe and the Tohono O’odham Nation.