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Practice Areas & Settings

Advancing Indigenous Self-Determination

Ryan P Seelau

Advancing Indigenous Self-Determination
grandriver via iStock

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I helped sue the Chilean government in my first case after graduating from law school. The lawsuit asserted violations of Indigenous rights perpetrated by the Chilean government and went before the Chilean Supreme Court. I was less than five years out of law school when I stood outside under the sun in the world’s driest desert, listening for hours. I listened as Indigenous leaders from nearby Likan-antai communities described violations to their ancestral land rights by the Chilean government. I listened as they proposed different ideas on how they might respond. I listened as they asked for my analysis and assistance in giving a legal voice to their concerns.

What Are Indigenous Rights?

One of the fundamental tenets of Indigenous rights is the concept of self-determination, which embodies the right for all peoples to determine their own economic, social, and cultural development. For more than 476 million Indigenous people worldwide, the right to self-determination is necessary to ensure that their culture—including language, customs, belief systems, and lifeways—and their right to live on the land of their ancestors continues into the future.

Over the past 30 years, Indigenous rights have been increasingly recognized by adopting comprehensive international instruments on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. For example, in 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration affirms that existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms apply to Indigenous Peoples and creates a universal framework to make sure that governments work directly with Indigenous communities to address human rights violations. Less than a decade later, in 2016, the Organization of American States (OAS)—an intergovernmental organization of 35 member countries in North and South America—adopted the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to combat societal discrimination against Indigenous Peoples.

Alternative Career Paths for Practicing Lawyers

I have spent 15 years working to strengthen Indigenous rights—both internationally and domestically—particularly in the area of Indigenous self-determination. Many practitioners in Indigenous rights either work for law firms or practice groups within firms wholly dedicated to federal Indian law or for a Native nation government or the federal government. However, there are alternative career paths for individuals interested in practicing Indigenous rights, including working for a nonprofit/NGO (nongovernmental organization), creating a nonprofit/NGO, or working to advocate for policy changes.

Nonprofits offer those seeking a nontraditional legal career an excellent mechanism for exploring different fields and specializations. In the United States, there are Indigenous nonprofits focused on conservation (e.g., Indigenous Environmental Network), economic and food sovereignty (e.g., First Nations Development Institute), governance (e.g., Native Governance Center), law and policy (e.g., Tribal Law and Policy Institute), voting rights (e.g., Four Directions), and many other areas.

After graduating from the University of Arizona’s Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy LLM program, I worked as a researcher with the Native Nations Institute (NNI)—a nonprofit think tank committed to analyzing, informing, and supporting Native nations’ exercise of self-governance. During my time at NNI, I researched and wrote scholarly articles, assisted with organizing and hosting policy forums, and served as the lead developer of an expansive online curriculum called “Rebuilding Native Nations,” which allowed me to participate in interviews of more than 100 Native nation leaders and governance practitioners. These responsibilities enabled me to work directly with Native nations and see firsthand how they approached exercising their inherent rights of self-governance in various ways. Nonprofits can offer Indigenous rights practitioners the ability to work on the ground and learn directly from the communities they serve.

In addition to working for established nonprofit organizations, another option for more entrepreneurial individuals is to create the work you want to do and found an NGO. After leaving NNI, I cofounded an NGO in Chile that focused on education and advocacy to advance Indigenous rights of self-determination. The NGO structure fostered potential future grant-funding opportunities, and Chile had recently ratified an international treaty on Indigenous rights with which my cofounder and I were familiar. We expected to learn from Indigenous communities how something on paper (i.e., an international treaty) could be effectuated in practice on the ground. Through the NGO, we provided basic “rights education,” explaining how international instruments addressed Indigenous rights and how international courts had been interpreting these instruments. Networking is critical in this line of work, and conferences, symposia, government meetings, etc., are invaluable in meeting new people and exchanging new ideas. For my partner and I, these events resulted in unpaid opportunities to speak at academic events or travel to communities and talk to Indigenous leaders directly. As our networks expanded, we received a variety of project offers: conducting research and writing case studies on Indigenous community success stories, writing chapters in human rights publications, consulting with mining companies on what actions they needed to take to comply with international law, and, ultimately, assisting in representing communities regarding their claims against the Chilean government for violations of international law.

There are many opportunities for getting involved in international Indigenous rights. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of established international NGOs and nonprofits working to advance Indigenous rights, including the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Cultural Survival, and the Forest Peoples Programme. Additionally, major international bodies such as the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the International Labour Organization, continuously operate in the field of Indigenous rights.

A Career in Research and Advocacy

After working in Chile at the NGO for nearly three years, I returned to the United States, where I am now a senior researcher for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). The NCAI is “the oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities.” This position offers the opportunity to listen and learn from Indigenous communities and work with them to transform their ideas and priorities into actionable policies. Working as an NCAI researcher includes gathering information provided by Native nations on particular topics (e.g., economic development, food sovereignty, juvenile justice, etc.) and analyzing that information to comprehend why things are the way they are and how things can improve. Often, this is achieved by recognizing what Native nations are already accomplishing; understanding how law, policy, and governance structures contributed to those successes; and determining how those successes can be replicated or adapted elsewhere. In addition to research opportunities, other attorneys at NCAI use their skills to advocate for policy changes on Capitol Hill and with the administration or provide technical assistance to Native nations on implementing federal legislation.

NCAI is not the only organization dedicated to analyzing the agents of change, advocating for new policy, and providing technical assistance. Organizations like the National Indian Child Welfare Association, Native American Rights Fund, and GRID Alternatives’ National Tribal Program are just a few of the growing number of organizations committed to strengthening Indigenous rights in this way.

Entering the Field of Indigenous Rights

The stakes are incredibly high for anyone considering work in Indigenous rights. For many of my Native friends and colleagues, this work is something they have always seen themselves doing because it is a chance to fight for the self-determined future of their communities against the systems that, for centuries, have tried to exterminate, assimilate, discriminate, and oppress them. For me, a non-Native, it has been essential to embrace a professional ethos of what is at stake for Indigenous communities, what these communities say they need, and what role I can realistically play as an advocate.

No matter the area of law you choose to practice, it is crucial to remember your role. You are responsible for listening, analyzing, and then offering ideas on how a client (whether an individual, a corporation, an organization, a community, or a nation) might choose to move forward. You must remember that no matter the context, the actual decision belongs to the client. Your job is to advise, not direct. Once the client makes a decision, your job is to amplify that decision. It should never be the other way around. Unfortunately, for Indigenous communities, the opposite has often been true. When practicing in Indigenous rights, the right to self-determination needs to be at the heart of it all. The “self” in the right to self-determination refers to the Indigenous communities you serve. The “determination” refers equally to those decisions you wholeheartedly agree with and those with which you fully disagree.

Individuals interested in deepening their understanding of Indigenous rights and pursuing a career in Indigenous rights advocacy should consider enrolling in an advanced degree program centered on Indigenous rights. A specialized program offers a more robust education on the complex issues facing Indigenous peoples today, including an explanation of federal Indian lawIndigenous peoples’ human rights advocacy, environmental law, and other fields of law related to Indigenous community and economic development. For me, taking a year to focus on Indigenous rights and learn from some of the brightest minds on the subject was invaluable. I graduated with a stronger foundation in Indigenous rights than I had previously and was better prepared for my career ahead.