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CU Law's American Indian Law Program: On the Front Lines of the Indigenous Sovereignty Movement

In honor of Indigenous Peoples' Day on October 10, 2022, The 1891's Tales from the Trenches Editor Marty Whalen reached out to Ellen Thurston, AILP Faculty Research Fellow at CU Law, to help CWBA members learn more about the program.

The University of Colorado Law School’s American Indian Law Program (AILP) is renowned across the country for its history of incredible scholarship and work supporting Indigenous Peoples in the United States. It houses one of the first American Indian Law Clinics, established in 1992, which has fought for sovereignty, fair housing, voting rights, and natural resources protection across the United States. The AILP faculty includes renowned leaders in the fight for Indigenous Peoples’ rights, James Anaya, Kristen Carpenter, Charles Wilkinson, and Sarah Krakoff. Their passion for Indigenous sovereignty has motivated many students to continue this work, creating a new generation of lawyers focused on ensuring the unique needs of Tribes, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians are met. The AILP, however, does not only focus on domestic laws to promote tribal sovereignty; they also draw from international law.

In 2010, three years after its adoption, President Obama expressed his support for a groundbreaking international instrument, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration). This was the first UN document that was created by Indigenous Peoples for Indigenous Peoples and recognizes their unique rights surrounding culture, spirituality, and natural resources, among others. The United States government continues to call the Declaration “aspirational” in international forums, but there are clear examples that it is so much more than that.

The Implementation Project (TIP), a joint venture of the AILP and the Native American Rights Fund, is focused on implementing the Declaration in the United States through legislation, judicial opinions, and agency regulations at all levels of government. Recently, TIP has made significant progress in giving the Declaration teeth on the ground in Indian Country. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation has fully adopted the Declaration into their tribal code, and the Pawnee Nation recently passed the Pawnee Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (the Act), which ensures that the Declaration is used as the moral guidance upon which all their laws and policies are based. The Act calls on President Biden to establish, in conjunction with U.S. Indigenous Peoples, a national action plan to implement the Declaration across the country through federal laws and policies. It also requests that states containing Pawnee homelands and sacred sites, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, to pass legislation adopting the Declaration. TIP has also hosted multiple workshops with tribes, with more planned in the future, to listen to their needs and help them build capacity to implement the Declaration into their own laws as the Muscogee and Pawnee Nation have.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend two of these workshops in Oklahoma with the Cherokee Nation and the Pawnee Nation through Professor Carpenter’s Advanced American Indian Law Seminar. We heard from tribal leaders about their programs and where they see opportunities to use the Declaration, and my classmates and I shared what we’ve learned from our own research. The excitement and hope in the room was incredibly inspiring, and the progress the tribes were making to strengthen protections for language, natural resources, and religion show that there is real progress being made in this field. The Cherokee Nation was also generous enough to host a tour of the reservation. We met with tribal elder and spiritual leader, Crosslin Smith, who spoke to us about the importance of cultural practices for the wellbeing of individuals and the community as a whole. He also performed a water blessing, and the words he spoke over the water solidified in all of us how vitally important it is to strengthen human rights protections for Indigenous Peoples. The seminar class this fall will have an equally amazing opportunity to hear from tribal leaders and share their research on the application of the Declaration with the Northern Arapaho tribe, a tribe with homelands in Colorado, on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

To learn more about the exciting things happening with the American Indian Law Program at University of Colorado Law School, please visit or email

For more information about the work of The Implementation Project, visit

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., with students from Professor Carpenter's Advanced American Indian Law Seminar (Pictured from left: William Raley '22 (Cherokee Nation), Kevin Miller '20, Matthew Vondrasek, Jennifer Goodman '22 (Wyandotte Nation), Chief Hoskin, Elizabeth Truitt '22, Ellie Thurston '22, and Amanda Cranston '22)


Ellie Thurston grew up near Scranton, Pennsylvania, and has always been interested in protecting the environment and working with marginalized groups, finally deciding to go to law school to start a career in policy. After focusing on Indigenous Peoples' rights at Colorado Law, she decided to focus on promoting tribal sovereignty, especially over natural resources, and one day hopes to work in policy at the federal level.

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