What areas of law does your firm help with pertaining to the Native American?
We assist in all aspects of Native American law or Indian law, whether it be a matter involving the federal-tribal relationship, the state-tribal relationship, the intra-tribal relationship, or the relationship between individual Indians who have rights that implicate either the tribe, the United States, or the state in which they reside or are located.
We also handle cases involving Native American issues where there is a dispute between individual Indians against individual non-Indians, or individual Indians against other individual Indians. Another area in which we assist involves an individual Indian and his or her rights as opposed to a business or corporation. For example, casinos are often corporations. Some casinos are run by the tribe, others are operated by non-Indians, and still other casinos are managed jointly by tribal and non-Indian corporations. These kinds of relationships can be complex, but I am very familiar with them.
When I was first licensed as an attorney, I worked in a national firm specializing in Indian law. I have continued that specialty throughout my years of practice as a tribal attorney, as a negotiator with the state and federal governments, and as an attorney representing individual Indians. With individual Indians, much of my work has been in the area of their land disputes, whether it be pollution by an oil company or a conversion of their resources by oil companies that go on the Indians’ lands to produce the underlying minerals.
Why does your firm choose to help with this type of law?
Well, I am part-Native and I was raised in a community that is both Native and non-Indian. Oklahoma is a place where these issues frequently arise, and they are very, very interesting. And I have a Native identity and I identify with Native Americans because I am part of that community. Because of its complexity, this area is very intellectually stimulating. It is a challenge to resolve these complex issues.
What issues dealing with tribal law has your firm helped with? You mentioned a couple. Can you go into some more specifics?
I have done contract negotiations between the state, tribal, and federal governments. I have done disputes where the governance of the tribe was at issue, assisted in resolving who was in power based upon the interpretation of the tribal constitution, and litigated those issues before both the tribal and federal courts. I have also represented individual Indians.
In one instance, I represented over 30 Kiowa members in a lawsuit against the United States. The case lasted some years and involved a non-Indian corporation. A natural gas pipeline ruptured and the liquid components of the natural gas pipeline got into the water, and the Indians were injured because they drank the water over a period of years. As a result, they had several different kinds of toxic outcomes and illnesses. So I set that case up and worked on the toxicology, the economics, and the hydrogeology, and brought in the necessary expertise.
I often use experts to assist in the preparation and the presentation of a case. One of the things that is helpful in understanding the factual basis of any particular dispute is to have the right expert, a person who is specialized, and the court will treat that individual as an expert in a particular area. And this case involving the individual Indians that were poisoned, it was necessary to engage seven or eight different experts.
We also do cases involving family law. For example, say a non-Indian and an Indian have a child, or two Indians have a child, and the jurisdiction is that of tribal court. We represent either party in the tribal courts. In addition, issues relating to Indian law frequently come up in the state courts, particularly in Oklahoma, involving oil and gas leases. State court approval is needed where a party is a member of the Five Civilized Tribes.
For over 30 years, I’ve treated just about every kind of case relating to the very specialized practice of Indian law. In addition to the areas I’ve already mentioned, I have been an attorney general to several tribes, I have been a prosecutor for the Bureau of Indian Affairs prosecuting wrongdoing of tribal leaders, and I have also defended people in the tribal courts of prosecution.
How has the firm helped in the gaming activity conflict issues?
We do it through negotiation, arbitration, or litigation. There are often arbitration clauses in the relevant documents, and we prepare the position of the tribe or the gaming operator. We can work on either side of the fence, as it were, with either the gaming management, which can be non-Indian or Indian, or with the tribe itself. We also assist in negotiating contracts for tribes or for management contractors so that we can avoid litigation in the first place.
Why should a tribe choose you for representing them?
Very few attorneys know anything about Indian law, and fewer still have as much experience and expertise in Indian law that we have. We have the tribal perspective because we have represented tribes, but we have also represented non-Indian entities in tribal disputes. We have lots of associations with people within the Native American legal community. And when necessary, we associate with people who have even greater levels of expertise.