The 21 undergraduates in “Native Americans and the Law” taught by N. Bruce Duthu ’80 learn quickly that it’s important to come prepared to class. The Samson Occom Professor of Native American Studies (NAS) is likely to call on students with specific questions, such as, “How would you describe the reasoning of the Johnson v. M’Intosh Supreme Court case of 1823?,” and he’ll expect an answer.
“While at first it’s a bit intimidating, I think we all benefit from Professor Duthu’s style of teaching,” says Karen Doster ’11 of Basking Ridge, N.J., who is majoring in government with a public policy minor and considering law school. “It makes class more engaging, and he encourages us to question what we are reading and form our own conclusions about the cases.”
Interest in the course was evident during a recent visit, when attentive students took notes (half in notebooks, half on laptops) and frequently raised their hands to make a comment or ask a question. Duthu referred to his handouts, chalkboard maps, and specific cases in the book, American Indian Law: Cases and Commentary and then followed up with summary points, such as: “The Johnson case was critical because the Indians were presented as a people who needed the tutelage of a ward. But the question was, when does this guardianship end?”
Duthu tied the material to what might connect with his audience—he compared some terms of American Indians’ rights to that of students living in dormitories, who “can hang pictures but can’t knock down walls.” He also noted that the Appellant chief lawyer in the Johnson case was Dartmouth’s own Daniel Webster, Class of 1801.
Karen Doster ’11 in Professor Duthu’s Native Americans and the Law class on April 6. (photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)
There are more than 560 recognized American Indian tribes in the United States, and they are the only ethnic group in the nation to have legal claims to land. But what American Indians can and can’t do on the land is often a point of contention, and this class focuses on those landmark legal debates.
These historic decisions inform modern controversies, such as the development of casinos in Massachusetts, property taxes in upstate New York (City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation, 2005), or the jurisdiction of the Navajo Supreme Court. “Whatever the issue, the thing we always come back to is sovereignty,” says Duthu.
And as Duthu points out to the class, the issue of sovereignty is not one unique to the United States—the rights of Indigenous people are considered by countries around the world, including Australia and Canada. “We’re not the only ones dealing with it, but we can set the standard for developing conventions in treaty making,” he says.
N. Bruce Duthu ’80, Samson Occom Professor of Native American Studies and chair of the program
N. Bruce Duthu ’80 (photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)
- Expertise: Tribal law
- Teaches: “Native Americans and the Law,” “Indian Country Today,” “Native American Law and Literature”
- Research objective: “To help correct the massive illiteracy about tribal sovereignty that exists in the U.S.”
- International: Visited Australia three times to share his expertise with aboriginal peoples. The United States “can set the standard for developing conventions in treaty making with indigenous people,” he says.
- Recently published: American Indians and the Law, 2008
- Member of: United Houma Nation of Louisiana
- On the other side: A 1980 graduate of Dartmouth, Duthu says he’s taught about six children of former classmates