I’m very proud to share that the University of Wisconsin Law Library, in partnership with the National Indian Law Library, the Open Law Library, the UW Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, has been awarded the 2023 Public Access to Government Information Award by the American Association of Law Libraries for our Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project.

The right to know the laws by which we are governed is a fundamental right in a democratic society. Access to our laws is essential to protect and promote due process and equal protection, access to justice, and tribal self-governance. However, for a majority of the 574 federally recognized American Indian tribes, no laws have been published. Where it is available, tribal law is scattered across databases, websites, and print publications, often incomplete and outdated. This lack of access to tribal law negatively impacts Native Nations and their members, hinders non-member partnerships with tribes, and limits general understanding of tribal sovereignty and perspectives. The Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project addresses this critical need for improved public access to tribal laws.

In this pilot project, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, developers worked with Native Nations to make their laws publicly available using a customizable publishing platform that offers tribes full ownership and control over their content. Three tribes, including Wisconsin’s Stockbridge-Munsee and Lac Courte Oreilles, have already openly published their laws using this platform and several others are in development.

This platform also enables libraries to partner with tribes in providing public access to current, authenticated copies of these laws through free digital collections. These collections, which automatically incorporate laws as they are updated by tribes, will enable library users to simultaneously search the current laws of multiple participating tribes. Using metadata standards and code developed by and for the National Indian Law Library’s Tribal Law Gateway and the University of Wisconsin Law School Digital Repository (tribal law collection coming soon), other libraries will soon be able to curate their own federated tribal law collections with tribal partners at no cost using the library platform developed by the Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project.

Project partners are reaching out to tribal leaders, legal professionals, and librarians to share information about and encourage participation in the project. We have presented at meetings of the American Association of Law Libraries, WestPac, National American Indian Court Judges Association, Wisconsin Tribal Judges Association, and Oklahoma Bar Association.  Next week, we will present the project at the Tribal College Librarians Professional Development Institute in Bozeman, MT.  And we’ll also discuss the project in a deep dive session entitled, “Recognizing the Third Sovereign: Promoting Awareness of, Respect for, and Access to Native American Tribal Law” at the AALL Annual Meeting in Boston in July.

Too often, tribal law is excluded from our collective understanding of “American law,” leading to the marginalization of Native communities and the invisibility of their governance structures. As law librarians, we recognize the imperative need to expand our conception of American law to encompass the work and experiences of tribal nations. We believe that the Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project will help tribes enhance the power and visibility of their law and empowers libraries to provide public access to these important sources of law.  For more information about the project, contact Bonnie Shucha, Associate Dean and Director of the UW Law Library.