Lindsay Robertson shares OU's focus on Native law with the world

Winter 2020

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Lindsay Robertson

Lindsay Robertson

It seems natural – maybe even obvious – that the University of Oklahoma is the U.S. epicenter of Native American law. But most people don’t realize that influence spreads far beyond our borders and into the United Nations itself.

“We have what I believe is the most comprehensive Indian law curriculum in the country,” said Lindsay Robertson, OU’s Chickasaw Nation Native American Law Chair. “We also are global players in Indigenous peoples’ law.”

When Robertson landed his “dream job” at OU Law in 1997, the college offered two courses in Native American law. He helped build a curriculum that has made OU the nation’s leading specialist for Native law.

In 2000, Robertson shared a course via teleconferencing with a colleague at the University of Ottawa. “We would teach them American Indian law, and they would teach us Canadian First Nations law,” he said. “We discovered that was the world’s first international law class where professors from different countries united by teleconference technology.”

The course attracted students from seven law schools around the world. It is still taught today to OU Law students and those from Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In 2003, Robertson was contacted by a course graduate working for the U.S. Department of Justice, which was part of an inter-agency delegation to the United Nations. He invited Robertson to join as a tribal law expert, and OU’s connection to the U.N. was forged.

From 2004 to 2006, Robertson advised the U.S. Delegation to the Working Group on the Declaration of Rights to Indigenous Peoples, the world’s first comprehensive Indigenous rights instrument. While serving, he learned from an Argentine counterpart that “at the time, there wasn’t a single law school in Latin America that taught Indigenous peoples law,” Robertson said. “I thought, ‘Well, I can do something about that.’ ”

He started an international summer fellowship program in 2006 that brings senior faculty members from Latin American universities to study Native American law at OU. The fellows are encouraged to begin an Indigenous peoples law program upon returning home.

“Our first fellow has taught Indigenous law to hundreds of Argentine lawyers,” he said. “This is like planting seeds. In Latin America, everyone who works in Indigenous peoples law knows OU.”

Robertson became the nation’s first permanent Native American law chair with the Chickasaw Nation’s 2015 gift to the OU Foundation. He used proceeds to expand the fellowship program and sponsor students in OU’s own non-governmental organization – the International Human Rights Clinic.

Clinic students research a country undergoing the Universal Periodic Review process, during which every nation reports to the U.N. on their human rights record. Students travel to that country to meet with Indigenous and government leaders.

“We pick small countries with Indigenous populations because no one else is going to speak for them,” Robertson said. “Every report we’ve filed has been relied upon by the Human Rights Council.”

Currently, OU’s International Human Rights Clinic is working with the Terraba tribe of Costa Rica, researching industry threats to a river the tribe relies upon. “This is front-line international human rights law,” Robertson said.

In Oklahoma, Robertson serves as supreme court justice for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and was Special Counsel on Indian Affairs to two governors, advising the state on tribal negotiations for a decade.

“Because the Chickasaw Nation chair is an endowed position, OU will always have a Native American law program,” he said. “There’s a place dedicated to understanding the legal complexities of relations between the federal and state governments and tribes. That’s the most satisfying thing for me – OU will always be here for Native peoples.”