Diné College on Navajo Nation working to create law school

Tsaile, Ariz. • The first college established decades ago by an American Indian tribe in the United States is now working to create a law school.

Formal efforts picked up speed with a recent two-day symposium held at Diné College on the Navajo Nation. Officials talked about everything from the college's original mission and accreditation to student courses, judicial advocates and what community such an institution would serve.

Rex Lee Jim, the director of the college's Navajo Sovereignty Institute, said that ideally, the law school would specialize in emerging areas of Indian law that are significant to the Navajo Nation economy.

Jim organized the symposium and will help set up an advisory committee going forward.

Those who attended the recent meeting included Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez; Stacy Leeds, dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law and a former Supreme Court Justice for the Cherokee Nation; Robert Yazzie, a former chief justice of the Navajo Nation; JoAnn Jayne, the Navajo Nation's current chief justice; Patrick Anderson, an Alaska-based lawyer and the CEO of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc.; and former Navajo Nation Chairman Peterson Zah.

Zah said there were discussions about creating a law school during his tenure more than three decades ago. A former director of People's Legal Services, he offered to formally take the matter before the tribal council.

"This is something we need for the betterment of the Navajo people," he said.

Diné College began in 1968 as the first tribe-controlled institution of higher learning in the U.S. It has campuses in Arizona and New Mexico.