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Innovative legal studies class teaches appreciation of diverse legal systems

Every year, Brandeis introduces a multitude of new, innovative classes. For those who are looking for a unique class next semester within the legal studies department, “Native American Tribal Legal Studies” could be a class worth looking into.

Anyone who enrolls in this class can be sure that they will be taught by a seasoned professional in his field who already has previous experience at Brandeis. Professor Douglas Smith (LGLS) has been teaching at Brandeis for the past six years, in addition to the time he spent teaching here between 2004 and 2005. In this time, he has taught “Dispute Analysis and Resolution” and “Immigration and Human Rights,” with his most recent course occurring over this past summer’s Justice Brandeis Semester called “Human Rights Advocacy in the Immigration System,” which has since been discontinued.

The curriculum sounds quite original, taking the course beyond a normal lecture class. Smith plans to incorporate “readings, movies, discussion, story, some music, a play or two and a lot of active role playing exercises.” By participating in these activities, he hopes “to involve students in the process that Tribal communities are going through now of recreating traditional legal systems for the 21st century and (at least) seven generations beyond.”

Additionally, he hopes that students will take away “an appreciation for the diversity of Tribal legal systems, institutions and roles as well as for how law has functioned in the past and continues to function in Tribal societies to sustain cultures in a very hostile colonialist terrain.”

“I would also expect students will come away with the skills, concepts and values for observing and assessing and understanding any legal system and be able to tell a story about what law is, how legal systems function and what law, and the institutions and roles that make it up, could be,” Smith said.

Students enrolled in this class can look forward to readings including more than just assigned chapters of textbooks. His favorite, “Sharing Our Stories of Survival: Native Women Surviving Violence” edited by Sarah Deer, Maureen White Eagle and others “mixes cases, law review articles and statutory provisions with stories, poems and reflections by Native survivors of sexual assaults.”

“I like our texts, ‘Introduction to Tribal Legal Studies’ by Justin Richland and Sarah Deer, which is in its third edition now and and was originally produced for the Project Peacemaker program at which I once taught, and Matthew Fletcher’s amazing ‘American Indian Tribal Law.’ I think students will enjoy dealing with some of the stories, some in graphic novel form, artwork and at least one play, ‘Sliver of a Full Moon.’”

These texts are meant to supplement the knowledge he has acquired in his past work outside of Brandeis, especially within the “Project Peacemaker program, originally out of UCLA. and then Turtle Mountain Community College.”

Having been employed by Project Peacemaker, which extends to various tribal colleges, he has learned that “tribal legal systems represent a vibrant present day/future looking resistance to colonial histories,” he said. “[The] study of Tribal law forces students to confront what law is, how legal systems function, or doesn’t, in a particular community, and, most of all, what the sort of adjacent possible world of what law could be might look like.” These things combined inform why Smith has decided to create this new course at Brandeis.

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