Law prof receives grant to study Indian policy reforms

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Assistant Law Professor Kirsten Carlson teaches federal Indian law, legislation, legal change and civil procedure at Wayne State University Law School. 

Photo by Steve Thorpe

$250,000 NSF grant will fund 2-year research project

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Wayne State University Law School Assistant Professor Kirsten Carlson is looking forward to going “off the map” with her upcoming research project.

“Part of what was attractive about this work is that it’s in uncharted territory,” she says. “We know so little about American Indians, Indian nations and the political process. They’re outside of most mainstream political science study.”

Carlson has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a two-year research project called “Legal Mobilization, Rights Claims, and Federal Indian Policy Reforms” that she hopes will foster a better understanding of how, when and with what success American Indian nations use the political process to change the law.

“I’m very, very excited that the National Science Foundation is interested in this work and has decided to support it,” Carlson says. “I’m hoping to learn more about the kinds of legislative strategies that Indian nations use and how successful they are, so that we can use that information to build better advocacy.”

The genesis of the project was Carlson’s realization that so little was known about the subject.

“I’m trained as a social scientist, so I started to think ‘maybe we need to know more about this,’ she says. “It prompted me to ask how we could develop better empirical data. First we would look at what Congress does … how does it legislate when it comes to Indian nations? And then looking at what role Indian nations play in the legislative process. Do they have any strategy? If so, what is it and is it successful?”

Carlson teaches federal Indian law, legislation, legal change and civil procedure. She is faculty advisor to the Native American Law Students Society and serves on the State Bar of Michigan Standing Committee on American Indian Law.

“We congratulate Kirsten on being awarded the grant and on her important work in this study to provide more information about how American Indian nations are affected by the law-making process,” Wayne Law Dean Jocelyn Benson said in a statement.

She received an earlier National Science Foundation research grant to study the Aboriginal and treaty rights in Canada. As a Fulbright Scholar, she researched the Waitangi Tribunal and the treaty claims settlement process in New Zealand. She’s been published in the Michigan Law Review, Georgia State Law Review, American Indian Law Review and Michigan State Law Review.

“Few studies have analyzed the role of legislation in law reform in Indian country,” Carlson wrote in her grant proposal. “Indian nations lose in the U.S. Supreme Court over 75 percent of the time. As a result, many lawyers and advocates in Indian country have encouraged Indian nations to pursue legislation rather than litigate problems plaguing Indian country. Yet most legislation introduced in Congress never gets enacted.”

Carlson is hoping that by crunching the data she collects, a clearer picture of Native American participation in the political process will emerge.

“I built a database of approximately 7000 bills that were introduced in Congress relating to Indians from 1975 to 2013,” she says. “This database will be one of the products of the grant and there will also be a related database on Congressional hearings.” 

Carlson hopes that many different groups and individuals will benefit from the research.

“In addition to the databases, there will also be law review articles and books,” she says. “I also hope to be sharing my findings with some of the main advocacy groups in ‘Indian Country.’ The final thing, and it’s one of the main focuses of the National Science Foundation, is the training of students. This project gives me the chance to enhance the training that Wayne Law has for its students in legislative advocacy and statutory interpretation.”

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