NORMAN — The University of Oklahoma School of Law is launching a new program designed to help American Indian tribal officials and others navigate the legal landscape in Indian Country.
OU recently opened enrollment for its new online Master of Legal Studies program in Indigenous Peoples Law. Classes begin in the fall semester.
The two-year program provides a good option for people who need legal expertise in American Indian law, but don't need to pursue a law degree, said Joe Harroz, dean of the law school.
The program includes 30 hours of coursework, and its online format will work well for working adult students, Harroz said.
University officials have seen a great deal of demand from businesses who work with tribes and tribal officials who aren't looking for a license to practice law, but need a greater understanding of legal complexities between the tribes and state and federal governments.
“It gives them a real advantage,” he said.
Virginia St. John, a vice president with Florida-based business consulting firm Upper Mohawk, is one of those students. The firm works closely with various tribes, American Indian-owned firms and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The program piqued her interest because it would help her understand the legal relationships between the federal government and the various tribes with which her firm works, St. John said. Those relationships are often emotionally fraught and difficult to understand to an outsider like herself, she said.
“It's really complicated,” she said. “There isn't one handy book that you can buy to read up and become an expert.”
Curtis Berkey, a tribal attorney in Berkeley, Calif., said the program would also be a good option for tribal council members and other officials who might encounter legal issues 10 to 15 times a day.
The relationship between the federal government and tribal governments is complex, he said, and officials need to be able to understand that relationship themselves, without consulting attorneys to explain it to them.
The program is one of two specialties the law school will offer in its new Master of Legal Studies program. The school is also offering a classroom-based program in Natural Resources Law.
The two specialties have obvious connections to Oklahoma, Harroz said — the state is home to many American Indian tribes and the energy industry is a key player in the state's economy.
The two specialties are also areas in which OU already has a great deal of expertise on campus, he said, including faculty members from the law school, the university's Native American Studies program and the Mewborne College of Earth and Energy.
It's really complicated. There isn't one handy book that you can buy to read up and become an expert.”