American Indians look abroad to expand legal horizons

It's a problem common to indigenous peoples everywhere - from the Australian outback to American Indian reservations: To salvage what remains of their ancient cultures and homelands, they find they have to work through the same legal systems that have consistently threatened that heritage.

As interpreted by an international panel of indigenous leaders at a recent American Indian Law Conference at Harvard, this means:

* Expanding legal horizons to include international law and taking cues from such controversial groups as the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua, who have had mixed success in pressing their cases for self-determination before world forums.

* Challenging the over-conciliatory attitude that has characterized attorneys representing Indians and that has helped shape precedents for Indian law.

* Channeling tougher cases toward legislative reform rather than through the courts where, with what is seen as a conservative shift in the Supreme Court, Indian cases may make less headway.

International law, says Robert T. Coulter, executive director of the Indian Resource Center in Washington, ''is the alternative to the same old legal approach.''

Mr. Coulter explains that while the American Indians are veterans of the US legal system - fighting for land, water, and mineral rights as well as human rights - their long line of concessions in court has eroded their rights as sovereign governments. Early treaties recognized the tribes as separate nations.

This erosion, he says, resulted from attorneys' concessions ''that the ball game is over when the Supreme Court declares something,'' as in the Black Hills, S.D., land claim case, which the court refused to hear. Another problem, he adds , is the Indians' incomplete understanding of their own legal rights.

However, recognition before international groups like the United Nations or the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights could bring pressure to bear upon individual cases that are stymied in domestic courts.

Lawrence Baca, an attorney with the Justice Department, argues that efforts might be better spent improving domestic law through court action rather than working through international forums that have no enforcement authority. And most Indian leaders agree that more care should be taken to win cases at the domestic level.

It means recruiting legal representatives who can bridge the fundamental differences between the ''natural law'' of the Indians - based on a concept of living in harmony with nature - and the more economic-based law of modern society.

''Going to the oppressor for relief is absurd,'' asserts American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, noting the philosophical difference between the natural law of the Indians and the laws of industrial society.

For example, explains Australian Aborigine Bobbi Sykes, ''Indigenous people know that no man owns the land. But to be able to operate (through the legal system) we have to say we own the land. . . Already we've made a major compromise.''

The presence of such people as Mr. Means and Ms. Sykes at the conference, sponsored by the American Indian Law Students' Association, was a tacit admission, though, that they support efforts to salvage their culture through the conventional legal system. As the number of attorneys of American Indian descent grows indigenous leaders want to mount their efforts in a unified way, domestically or internationally.

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