Tribal Clinic Develops Toolkit to Help Indigenous Peoples Assert Their Rights

April 28, 2021
UCLA Law Professor Angela Riley
Professor Angela R. Riley directs UCLA Law’s Native Nations Law and Policy Center and UCLA’s dual-degree program in Law and American Indian Studies.

For the first time, leaders across Indian country have a toolkit available to them to address Indigenous and human rights through tribal lawmaking that supports and implements the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The “Tribal Implementation Toolkit” was developed by students and faculty in UCLA School of Law’s Tribal Legal Development Clinic, in collaboration with students and attorneys at the University of Colorado Law School and the Native American Rights Fund, or NARF. It is available for free to the public and stands as an invaluable resource for tribal leaders and communities to implement the key aims of the 2007 U.N. declaration. The Declaration is a far-reaching, aspirational document recognizing that Indigenous Peoples have a wide array of rights, including self-determination, equality, property, culture, religious freedom, health, and economic well-being, among others. The Declaration also calls on states to undertake legal reform that will remedy past violations and ensure current protections for Indigenous Peoples’ rights going forward.

“The work of the UCLA students was incredibly valuable to this project,” says John Echohawk, executive director of NARF. “Not only did they bring exceptional research and writing skills to the work, their commitment and passion to human rights efforts made them wonderful collaborators and colleagues.”

The effort was supported by a 2019 gift of more than $1.3 million from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians to fund the clinic and help strengthen legal institutions across Indian country by developing model legal systems and practices that can be adopted by Native Nations.

“The toolkit provides guidance for tribes on how to implement the Declaration wholesale into tribal law, as well as how to approach some of the subject matters into tribal law,” says Lauren van Schilfgaarde, UCLA Law’s San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Tribal Legal Development Clinic Director. “As we developed the toolkit, we focused on elevating tribal law as an avenue for implementing the Declaration’s call for indigenous and human rights.”

Clinic members and their partners designed the toolkit specifically to enable Indigenous Peoples to fully enjoy all of the human rights and fundamental freedoms that are recognized in the U.N. Charter, as well as the right to be free from any kind of discrimination. The toolkit offers leaders a blueprint to incorporate the Declaration into their tribal codes, resolutions, or agreements to address issues including language revitalization, land recovery, and child welfare.

Under the direction of UCLA Law alumna van Schilfgaarde ’12 and others, several students from UCLA Law and Colorado Law participated in the project, including UCLA Law’s Elena Aguirre ’21, Ryann Garcia ’21, and Hershini Gopal ’21.

“The toolkit is unique in that it provides concrete ways for Native Nations to harness the rights affirmed in the Declaration; there isn’t much else like it right now,” says Gopal, who comes from Colorado and joined the project in order to work with fellow Coloradans and focus on how the Declaration can be used to strengthen gender equality and reproductive justice and fight gender-based violence.

For Garcia, who serves as co-president of UCLA Law’s Native American Law Students Association, the project offered an opportunity to deepen her understanding of tribes’ cultural rights after she had previously worked on several projects in human rights at UCLA Law. She says, “Because the Declaration is not an actual legally binding international law mechanism and has yet to be implemented domestically by federal or state governments, tribes have the opportunity to lead the way in its implementation and can demonstrate how Native Nations function as distinct sovereign nations which rightfully assert their inherent human rights.”

“This project is important because it takes a framework of aspirational goals brought together by the international community and provides a concrete, accessible pathway to realizing those goals in a way which can actually improve the lives of Indigenous persons in the United States,” Aguirre says. “This shows the commitment that UCLA Law and its students have toward improving access for vulnerable, or historically disadvantaged populations, to the laws and policies that govern our nation. UCLA Law isn’t afraid of tackling really big, difficult projects, but instead works collaboratively to propose solutions to far-reaching, complex issues. This project and the clinic also show the opportunities that UCLA Law gives its students to have a lasting impact on some of the most important issues in the world, even while still in law school.”

Professor Angela R. Riley, who directs UCLA Law’s Native Nations Law and Policy Center and UCLA’s dual-degree program in Law and American Indian Studies, notes that this project was the product of a unique collaboration between two premier research universities and NARF, the nation’s leading Indian rights advocacy organization. “It was incredible to be able to come together during such a challenging year and still offer students the opportunity to work with Indian country’s leading scholars and attorneys on a project of such great import to Native Nations,” she says.

Riley notes, “UCLA Law trains students to help build the foundations for robust, independent governance and legal systems in Indian country. Our students’ work on this toolkit will enable tribes to use their sovereign status to call on the United States to implement the tenets of the declaration, model how that implementation can look, and ensure that the rights of the declaration are upheld for indigenous peoples under tribal law.”

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