A National Holiday, a Sports Team’s Name, and Researching Native American Law

In the United States we recently celebrated Columbus Day on October 13th. The day was established in 1934, as a national holiday to celebrate the Italian-American heritage of exploration; then was moved to the second Monday in October in 1968. Its celebration has become controversial, however, because Columbus did not in fact discover America and his arrival unleashed genocide against the indigenous people already living in the Americas.

This year both Seattle and Minneapolis celebrated the day as “Indigenous People’s Day”. Since 1990 the state of South Dakota has called this second Monday in October “Native Americans’ Day” and since 1994 the state of Tennessee has celebrated “American Indian Day” on October 31st. In 1998 California formalized their September celebration of “Native American Day”. Also in 2008 the federal government established “Native American Heritage Day” to be celebrated the day after Thanksgiving in November. Unfortunately that day is also celebrated by many as a “Black Friday” shopping extravaganza.

All of this variety of names and dates is due to federal, state and local jurisdictions all trying to find ways to celebrate Native American heritage. I hope that eventually this ongoing debate will lead to some consistency among the various times and ways to honor the rich and diverse indigenous Native American history and culture.

Another current controversy will be in the spotlight again on November 2, with a massive demonstration in Minneapolis when the Washington Redskins football team plays the Minnesota Vikings. The “Redskins” name is extremely controversial, both here in Washington, DC, and throughout the rest of the US. The name is generally regarded as derogatory and demeaning to Native Americans, but the owner of the team refuses to change it. There have been a series of demonstrations, but the one in Minneapolis may be the largest one. Additionally there are now petitions to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which attempt to ban the use of the word on broadcast media.

I don’t often cite Wikipedia, but their entry for Washington Redskins name controversy appears to be a thorough discussion of the origin of the word, its subsequent use in naming sports teams and the opposition to its use. Both sides of the controversy include Native Americans who either object to or accept the use of the word. There is a growing consensus however, that only Native Americans should be able to use the word for their teams or any other purposes they wish.

These and other similar controversies may lead to research on the interrelations between federal, state and tribal law. A good place to begin this research on the various aspects of Native American law is the National Indian Law Library (NILL). Their website states that “The National Indian Law Library (NILL) of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) was founded in 1972 as a public law library devoted to federal Indian and tribal law. NILL serves the public by developing and making accessible a unique and valuable collection of Indian law resources and assisting people with their Indian law-related information needs.”

The NILL website collects a wide variety of online resources that are available on the Internet. The NILL site includes a number of very useful online research guides, a catalog of the NILL print collection and a link to submit research requests. One of the many strengths of this site is its extensive collection of tribal law resources. David E. Selden, the law librarian of the NILL, has written “Researching American Indian Tribal Law” which is a comprehensive, current guide to using these resources In the introduction to the guide he states that: “The ability to research tribal law is becoming increasingly important as 566 sovereign Indian nations and Alaska Native villages exercise their powers of self-governance. “Tribal law” comprises the laws developed by tribes or Indian nations, which apply within their territories and to their members.” The NILL Tribal Law Gateway collects links to many primary law materials.

Another good collection of Native American law material, the Indigenous Law Portal, was recently added to the Law Library of Congress’s Guide to Law Online. This site includes links to general resources and an interactive map of the US with links to tribal websites and to material scanned from the Law Library’s print collection. These links include scans of treaties.

Just down the street from the Law Library of Congress, the National Museum of the American Indian has mounted a new exhibit: “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” The description of the exhibit includes this statement: “Treaties—solemn agreements between sovereign nations—lie at the heart of the relationship between Indian Nations and the United States. Native Nations made treaties with one another long before Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere. The United States began making treaties with Native Peoples because they were independent nations. Often broken, sometimes coerced, treaties still define mutual obligations between the United States and Indian Nations.” The exhibit includes eight original treaties and will be open until fall of 2018.

Thanks to the power of the Internet, we continue to have more resources available to research all facets of this fascinating and complex area of the law.


  1. Thanks for this excellent discussion. I expect you’d be interested in the persepective of this blogger:

  2. Susan:
    Thanks so much for that link. I realize not too many people may have read this post as the 22d (my birthday) was also a day of great tragedy in Canada. I just found this link ( ) from the National Conference of American Indians that seems to summarize their opposition to using that name for a professional sports team.

  3. I read (with interest and thanks) your description of what looks like a wonderful museum exhibition regarding the treaties, and found that museum’s web page for the exhibition (with numerous links to explore, including one to a blog devoted to the exhibition) at

    Here is a link to a discussion of the American influence on Canada’s own history of treaty-making (“Knowledge of the American experience reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to follow the treaty-based model of nation building”):