The Need - a National Indian Law Program

The late 1960's saw the establishment of federally funded legal service programs as part of the national War on Poverty. The goal of these programs was to provide representation to poor and disadvantaged people. Through the work of these legal service programs, the special needs of Indian people became apparent. The consequent necessity for a national program to coordinate and provide this assistance emerged, for legal services programs could not possibly handle all the issues affecting Indian people. The nation needed a program dedicated to serving the legal needs of Indians, and in the Fall of 1970, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) became that program.

The accomplishments of the NARF since 1970 have confirmed the necessity for national legal representation for Indians. NARF strives to protect the most important rights of Indian people, within the limits of available resources. To achieve this, its first Steering Committee (later called the NARF Board of Directors) defined five priority areas for NARF's work: the preservation of Tribal existence; the protection of Tribal natural resources; the promotion of human rights; the accountability of governments to Native Americans; and the development of Indian law and educating the public about Indian rights, laws and issues. To secure the fulfillment of the fifth priority, the systematic development of Indian law, NARF began a special project, the National Indian Law Library.

The Vision - a library devoted exclusively to Indian law

During the first months of the NARF's work, its attorneys and supporters spoke often of the critical need for a central clearinghouse on Indian law.

The NARF staff discovered that in the past, no single person or institution had collected information on the many lawsuits filed affecting Indians. There had been no concerted effort in communicating the existence of such lawsuits, or other significant developments in Indian law, and this had been detrimental to the restoration of Indian rights. The efforts of those few attorneys who had been involved were uncoordinated, and the results of their litigation had not been known to others working in the field. Many attorneys had been unable to represent Indians due to the difficulty of researching Indian law and tracking current developments. The task had either proven too great for the attorney, or it was cost prohibitive for the Indian client.

There were also dozens of legal cases being filed by Indian legal service programs on reservations from California to Maine. These Indian legal service programs were funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity. The attorneys working for these programs were primarily young, inexperienced, and overworked. To complicate their situation, they had inadequate time to research issues and communicate with each other. The consequence was a three-fold increase in the number of Indian law cases being litigated. After more than two hundred years of sporadic involvement with the white man's judicial system, this increase happened in less than five years.

At this time the standard commercial reporting system for Indian case law was archaic. To have less than forty subject headings in a field of law that is a quagmire of treaties, statutes, judicial and administrative rulings was an impediment. Consequently, even published or reported court decisions were relatively inaccessible to lawyers practicing Indian law. What further complicated the situation for legal service programs was their inaccessibility to large law libraries. They simply could not afford to subscribe to the expensive court reporters and digests that needed to be scanned for relevant Indian law decisions.

Early in its existence, NARF began to develop the concept of a central clearinghouse for Indian legal materials. The need for such a project was brought into sharp focus by NARF attorneys who corresponded and met with Native American law students, law professors, legal services attorneys, and members of the private bar who represented Indian Tribes. What resulted was NARF's desire to join with others working in the field of Indian law, to insure its orderly development. Appropriately, the idea of a National Indian Law Library to coordinate these efforts was born.

The Action - The National Indian Law Library

The Steering Committee and staff of the Native American Rights Fund felt that some development of a library, national in scope, had to proceed, despite the lack of specific financial support for such an endeavor. In June 1971, Peter J. Aschenbrenner joined the NARF attorney staff. He previously held a teaching assistantship for an Indian law course at Boalt School of Law, University of California at Berkeley. In this capacity, he had prepared a casebook of Indian law materials for use by law students taking the course. As an attorney, Mr. Aschenbrenner was spending his time developing what was soon to become NARF's general index to Indian law. Due to the vast quantity of law affecting the lives of Indians, the Index required a large number of subject headings to provide sufficient access points to anyone using it. The objective was quick access to Indian law information which related to the problems confronted by the Indian legal practitioner. The result was The General Index to Indian Law, which originally encompassing more than 380 legal subject headings. It was the key to what would become the NILL collection. The cost of the considerable staff time used in its development was supported by the Ford Foundation.

As work on NARF's The General Index to Indian Law took shape, a simultaneous effort was made to establish a method of collecting, classifying and filing those legal materials NARF already possessed. In August of 1971 Melody Mackenzie, a Hawaiian Native, was hired as the first librarian to assist attorneys in building a research collection.

Throughout 1971, David Getches, NARF's Founding Director, met with a representative of the Carnegie Corporation of New York about NARF's need for assistance. On May 23, 1972, the Carnegie Corporation of New York announced that it had made a three-year grant to NARF for the development of NILL. Alan Pifer, President of Carnegie Corporation, when announcing the $119,000 grant, said, "The National Indian Law Library is already well on its way to being the best source of documents on Indian law in the country. We are pleased to help it develop into a research and information center with a nation-wide reach. We hope its expanded services will encourage more lawyers to represent Indian clients and thereby secure justice for Native Americans now inadequately served."

As one of the first steps toward establishing a law library, Native American Rights Fund staff members visited the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services in Chicago, Illinois. This National Clearinghouse is widely known for providing comprehensive services to lawyers practicing poverty law, and in this capacity had developed a collections of Indian related cases. In June, 1972, NILL, with the assistance and support of the Office of Economic Opportunity, officially assumed the Indian law functions of the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services with the transfer to Boulder of all Indian law documents in their collection.

In the Summer of 1972, NARF contacted the staff of the Indian Claims Commission. Up to this point, the decisions of the Indian Claims Commission were largely inaccessible to attorneys and Tribes. A few incomplete collections had been assembled but were never catalogued nor printed for distribution. An agreement was reached whereby the Indian Claims Commission would provide a complete set of decisions to NARF. In exchange, NARF would assume the responsibility of cataloging, indexing, printing and distributing the Indian Claims Commissions Decisions. Peter Hrobsky was the first National Indian Law Library staff member hired to work on the Indian Claims Commission project.

Joseph Membrino joined the National Indian Law Library staff in 1972 as its first legal advisor. He filled the duties left by the departure of Peter J. Aschenbrenner from NARF's attorney staff. By the end of Summer 1972, NILL had a staff of three. They were Melody MacKenzie, Peter Hrobsky, and Joseph Membrino. They assumed the responsibility for filling the increasing number of requests for materials and research from the library patrons.

Since the National Indian Law Library's inception, one of its objectives had been the publication of a catalogue of all holdings, which would serve as an effective litigation tool when in the hands of attorneys. Thus any attorney who could not visit NILL, but wanted to know what was available in any particular area of Indian law, would be able to request library materials.

Volume one of the National Indian Law Library Subject and Document Catalogue was printed in July 1973. The Catalogue was divided into three sections. The first section listed NILL holdings by subject matter headings. The second section listed each holding by its classification number (later known as NILL number), a list of all pleadings in each law case, the state in which the action arose, the court, the Tribe, the date of the first pleading, and a description of the law case. The third section listed NILL's holdings in alphabetical order.

In 1974, volume two of the National Indian Law Library Subject and Document Catalogue was printed. The Native American Rights Fund Announcements (later known as The NARF Legal Review) listed NILL's holdings in its volume 1, number 1, 1972 issues through its volume 3, number 2, part 2, 1975 issue. This practice was discontinued with the Fall of 1975 publication of the first cumulative edition of the National Indian Law Library Catalogue. It sold for $20.00.

In the mid 1980s the National Indian Law Library Catalogue was converted into an electronic catalog for use by NILL Staff, and in 2000, the Law Librarian at that time, David Selden created and launched an Internet searchable version of the catalog which replaced the printed version. At this time the catalog had grown to over 10,000 titles. Anyone with Internet access could now search the updated catalog for free. Compared to the print catalog, the Internet catalog is updated much more frequently and offers much quicker and powerful searching features.

The Responsibility - meeting the information needs

A major part of meeting NARF's commitment to Indian law development has been the continued operation of NILL, offering research services and maintaining a repository and clearinghouse for materials on Native American law since 1972. Its history has demonstrated a desire to meet the information needs of those involved in researching and litigating Indian law.

Perhaps the most important aspect of NILL, as far as its patrons are concerned, is the reference service. Included in the reference service are subject matter searches through the National Indian Law Library collection, compilations of bibliographies, computer databases for document retrieval, legislative histories, referrals, and legal research. NILL staff performs other traditional library tasks. These include collection development, cataloging, website development and maintenance, and providing current awareness services.

NILL also performs a nontraditional library function. In September, 1972, NARF purchased a printing press, primarily for publishing the Indian Claims Commission Decisions, the NARF Announcements, and The National Indian Law Library Catalogue. These items were sold through NILL. NARF no longer has the printing operations; however, NILL has continued to sell publications produced by NARF and NILL.

The responsibility for providing information in a timely fashion is the shared responsibility of each National Indian Law Library staff member. The majority of this patron base is located outside Boulder, Colorado, thus inquiries for reference and research assistance are often handled over the phone, by e-mail and through the mail. NILL isn't so much about storing information as it is about finding it for its patrons.

The people who use NILL's collection are a diverse group. The most obvious patrons belong to NARF itself. Included in this group are NARF Board of Directors, attorneys, professional staff, and support staff from all three offices. Other patrons include former NARF staff, Indian Legal Service attorneys, attorneys in private practice, Tribal court personnel, Tribal governments, state governments, Indian organizations, members of the news media, politicians, prisoners, libraries, and scholars of all ages.

The Significance - collection and accomplishments

The National Indian Law Library is the only law library specializing in legal practice materials which are essential for practitioners of Indian law. Active collection of ephemeral type material is totally unique. NILL therefor surpasses other law libraries with outstanding Indian legal collections. The reason for this can be found in NILL's mission, "To develop and make accessible a unique and valuable collection of Indian law information and to assist people with their Indian law-related information needs.

NILL is the only comprehensive collecting of past and present Tribal governmental documents. This collection began in 1988 and now consists of Tribal constitutions, codes, ordinances, and resolutions numbering in excess of 700. It has established an invaluable communications network for those involved in the drafting and updating of Tribal government documents. NILL now has working documents on almost every conceivable subject, from declaration of self-determination to sewage disposal, adoptions of a Uniform Commercial Code, off-reservation regulations, conservation and domestic violence ordinances. Requests for samples of Tribal government documents are made on a regular basis. NILL has filled an urgent need as the single repository.

The National Indian Law Library is the only clearinghouse actively collecting Indian law related documents. The collection has grown from over 4,000 items in 1990 to over 10,000 items in 2000. NILL widely collects all Indian law-related material including books, pamphlets, federal government documents, state government documents, scholarly reports, journal articles, newspaper articles, student reports, and law reviews. NILL is unique because it is able to provide numerous access points for all these Indian law related materials through the NILL Internet catalog.

NILL is an invaluable resource for attorneys associated with Indian legal service programs, and Tribal attorneys. Due to the geographic isolation of most Indian legal service programs and Tribal governments, many would be without access to adequate law libraries if it were not for the existence of NILL.

The Future

The continued existence of NILL is a realization that lasting achievements are impossible without a vision, and dreams do not become real without action and responsibility. A critical need for the future is the continued reassessment and restatement of the role NILL will have in the development of Indian law. Change complicates things, yet it is inevitable. Cherokee humorist Will Rogers once said, "even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there."

In the next few years, NILL will focus on developing, updating and making its Tribal law collection (codes, constitutions and intergovernmental agreements) more accessible. In addition, the library will utilize the Internet as a tool to assist the Indian law researcher and to improve access to Indian law information and develop new and improved services to help meet unmet information needs of NARF and the public.

After nearly three decades of existence, special thanks to many people are in order. The creation and development of NILL was accomplished by the work of many highly motivated and dedicated individuals. Today, NILL is fortunate to have an excellent staff The future also holds much promise.