Just A Librarian Doing Indian Law

By Rebecca Plevel (Follow us on LinkedIn)

Regardless of where I am working and teaching, I am and will be a librarian doing Indian law. That passion arises from both my heritage (I am a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation), and my work in and around Indian Country in Arizona for 30+ years. It also comes from my relationship to the cultures and peoples who are doing Indian law every day and have been doing it since before the colonizers arrived.

After my experience practicing law, I changed directions and became a law librarian. I started my library work at the University of Arizona (yes, I am a triple Wildcat) as a Law Library Fellow in January 2020, just before we all went home due to COVID-19. Despite that hiccup, I got to work with some fantastic librarians and faculty there and continue to feed my passion for Indian Law and the law generally.  As a UA Fellow, I worked on updating the IPLP Resource Guide and created another guide for the new Certificate in Tribal Courts and Justice Administration program for Professor Robert Williams. I also provided research instruction to the Tribal Law Clinic, among a great many other projects wholly unrelated to Indian Law. It was a great place to start my new career.

Some of the ancient Pueblo petroglyphs, in the Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs Archeological District, located within Petrified Forest National Park in Apache CountyArizona, SW United States. (By Petrified Forest Ranger – Flickr, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14810130)

As I started my job hunt for the first full-time position in my new career, I didn’t find an opening at a law school and library that had a focus on Indian Law. I applied for several positions, including one at the University of South Carolina which, in addition to teaching,  would be responsible for  outreach, providing access to justice and access to information as well as collaboration with the bench and bar, which is something I am also passionate about. However when I accepted the position, I was told that “South Carolina Law doesn’t do Indian law.” So off to the other side of the country I went anyway with my passions, experience and goals. 

During my first week of work, I jumped into teaching in the 1L legal research and writing course with a writing faculty partner (who is awesome).  In my second week, I was tracked down by the one law faculty member who teaches American Indian law and contributes scholarship in the area. I was also sought out by students who were establishing a Native American Law Students Association chapter at USC. So much for not doing Indian law.

In the 1L research and writing program, the Law Librarians have developed their own research text, which is online, and as of this school year, open access – LRAW Research. Each year, the text is updated and we all contribute to that effort by taking a section or two in each semester’s ‘book.’  I was assigned the US Legal System in the Fall text and Federal Regulations in the Spring text.  

Who says I can’t do Indian Law? I inserted references into the unit on the US Legal System, specifically acknowledging that there are three systems of government in the United Statesfederal, state, and tribal. And that in addition to the four sources of law – constitutions, statutes and ordinances, rules and regulations, and case law – tribal law also comes from a fifth source – customs and tradition. I also pointed out that some tribes have adopted the tri-cameral form of government and the separation of powers doctrine, but not all of them. I further noted, that while Constitutions are foundational to the US legal systems, tribal powers are inherent rather than derived from the federal government and Tribal nations possess all powers of a sovereign government. Though that inherent sovereign authority has been limited by the federal government by treaty, by statute, and in some instances by judge-made federal common law.  In class I briefly discussed the Hopi government and constitution and how it was different from the US or state systems.

Last year, during a discussion about Indian law and governments and incorporating American Indian Law into the greater legal paradigm, I said something about being ‘just a librarian’ in comparison to other law faculty – when a colleague stopped me cold, and said you are never ‘just a librarian,’ you are a librarian and you are an expert in your field.  

Recently I gave an informal presentation to some law faculty about integrating American Indian Law into the law classes pursuant to ABA Standard 303(c), and noted that it’s not a niche discipline, that Tribal courts handle all the same kinds of matters as other courts in the US; it’s a field of American law, just like Federal, State and Municipal law.

So regardless of where I am working and teaching, I will be a librarian doing Indian law, right along with all the other kinds of law that I do. It is simply who I am.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.