Indigenous Legal Education: Columbia University

This post is another installment in a series on Indigenous legal education in North America. Previously, I’ve posted on programmes at three Canadian universities: the University of Victoria; the University of British Columbia; and Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. This post reflects on the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights programme at Columbia University, which has quite a different focus.

Interestingly, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights programme is not run out of the law school at Columbia. Instead, it is part of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR). ISHR has been operating for nearly 40 years and has always had a strong focus on interdisciplinary study of human rights. The current Director of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program is Elsa Stamatopoulou. She is also cross-appointed with the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Department of Anthropology at Columbia which is an indication of, not only the interdisciplinary perspective that underpins the programme, but also the particular connections with cultural and anthropological research. The work of faculty members from the Department of Anthropology, such as Elizabeth Povinelli, Audra Simpson, and Paige West provide important points of reference for the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights programme. This frames the discussion of Indigenous rights quite differently than a more legalistic approach.

However, the recognition and implementation of Indigenous peoples’ rights at an operational level is also a key driver of the programme. Professor Stamatopoulou has considerable experience working with Indigenous rights within the UN system and she has helped to ensure that the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights programme offers practical engagement with UN mechanisms.

The ISHR offers an annual Indigenous Studies Summer Programme on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and Policy. The programme attracts participants from around the world, many of whom are practitioners, activists, and members of civil society organizations, working at the coal face of Indigenous rights. This brief programme description highlights the importance of the interdisciplinary approach and experiential elements of the programme, as noted above:

The program provides an overview and analysis of the major questions in indigenous affairs today as they have emerged globally in the last decades, culminating with the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The course will analyze the interaction between the Indigenous movement—one of the strongest social movements of our times—and the intergovernmental system over the past 50 years, paying close attention to its questioning of and impact on international norms, institutions and major global debates. The program will use an interdisciplinary approach, and discussion will be presented under the lens of human rights studies, international law, political science, Indigenous studies, ethnic studies, development studies, sociology and anthropology. The course incorporates lectures and workshops on the most recent and innovative academic and other research and policy debates on indigenous peoples issues. It is complemented by visits to the United Nations and a Native American Nation, lectures and discussions with United Nations officials, officials of a Native American Nation and representatives of Indigenous organizations.

Alongside the delivery of the summer programme and other courses, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights programme helps to promote the study of Indigenous rights and bring together relevant research and researchers through a range of other initiatives and activities such as the Columbia University Seminar Series on Indigenous Studies and more focused seminars such as those that have brought together Indigenous Women Leaders. Although in quite a different context, this reinforces something I have previously noted in relation to the Canadian law school programmes – the importance of maintaining a range of inter-connected measures that support research, study, and teaching in the field of Indigenous legal education.