Indian Country Today Media Network: 9 Notable Women Who Rule American Indian Law

By Tanya H. Lee
October 23, 2013

Justice systems are never easy to come by, as the U.S. vertical hierarchy of courts, jury options and appeals processes attest. In American Indian law, with its need to integrate the principles of 567 nations (counting the U.S.), tribal law, state law, federal law, the inherent and reserved rights of Indigenous Peoples and treaty rights, creating justice is a job that requires the best minds of the times. Those with an ability to understand complex relations and theory, the strength to stand by their principles and the maturity to respect other people’s points of view. The nine women profiled here have taken up the task and are making major contributions to the field of American Indian law.

Carole E. Goldberg

Goldberg says one of her most important contributions to American Indian law is her work on Felix S. Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law. She is the only person to have served on the board for the 1982, 2005 and 2012 editions of that treatise. “The handbook has been the most widely used reference source for judges, for practitioners and for scholars looking to understand federal Indian law. It is known since its first edition in the 1940s for offering an interpretation of federal Indian law that places inherent tribal powers at the center of understanding the field.”

Goldberg is Jonathan D. Varat Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law. In 2007, she was appointed to serve as a Justice of the Hualapai Court of Appeals and in 2010 President Obama appointed her to the Indian Law and Order Commission. She co-authored Defying the Odds: The Tule River Tribe’s Struggle for Sovereignty in Three Centuries and co-edited with Kevin Washburn and Philip Frickey Indian Law Stories. She is working on a book that will showcase the results of her research on the administration of criminal justice in Indian country.

Angela Riley

Riley, Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma, is director of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center and co-director of the Native Nations Law and Policy Center. Riley says of her work, “Being on my tribe’s Supreme Court, working as an evidentiary hearing officer for Morongo, and serving as a member of the United Nations Indigenous Peoples’ Policy Board have been incredibly rewarding and deeply valuable experiences. They provide an opportunity to put my education and training to use to advance Native governance and facilitate Indigenous Peoples’ rights around the globe.”

Riley wishes she could be more optimistic about Indian rights in the U.S. “America is struggling… with how to reconcile the role of Indian nations within a liberal democracy. Indian nations’ status within the United States is a political one. Tribes’ sovereignty predates the formation of the U.S. Constitution. I have found that many people don’t understand the historical or legal complexities of the field. Without that understanding, there is a tendency to diminish Indian sovereignty.”