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Robert Odawi Porter dreamed big as a boy growing up in the Seneca Nation of upstate New York. Eventually, he went off to Harvard Law School and an academic career in Kansas, South Dakota and Iowa — a career made notable by his numerous and fiery theoretical articles on American Indian law. He is now coming home. Professor Porter, 39, has been tapped to put force behind his theories as director of the Center of Indigenous Citizenship, Law and Governance at Syracuse University College of Law. It is believed to be the only such institution of its kind in the eastern United States. “This is our field of dreams,” Porter said of the Syracuse program he will begin this fall. “We will build it, and they will come.” While research, legal reform and seminars carrying CLE credit for practicing attorneys will be the linchpin of the center’s work, Syracuse Law Dean Hannah Arterian said Porter would also teach a range of courses that explore modern and historical legal issues at the intersection of tribal law and American law. Porter and Arterian said the center would serve both campus and community, and each hoped it would inspire an increase in American Indian law students. Porter intends to make use of the law school’s Lubin House in Manhattan and Greenberg House in Washington, D.C., as well as political connections, to promote his cause far beyond Syracuse. “New York State Indian law is a remnant of colonialism from the 19th Century, with about 85 per cent of the statutes illegal under federal law,” said Porter. “They need to be repealed, and that’s going to take some time. In a similar way, the federal statutes need academic study. And everybody knows that the [U.S.] Supreme Court has simply created out of thin air the Indian law doctrines — generated at a time when [Indian] people were viewed as savages because we were non-Christians. Someone needs to keep hammering at that pretty strongly. “But some of this stuff is not controversial,” he added. “Some of it is just governance problems.” RECRUITED FROM IOWA Porter was recruited from his post as a tenured faculty member of the University of Iowa School of Law by Arterian, who took over at Syracuse Law only last July. “I knew him [Porter] by reputation,” said Arterian, who was most recently associate dean of the Arizona State University College of Law, one of a handful of campuses with a comprehensive program of American Indian law. “Coming from a law school and a university that understands how critical it is to create programming with respect to native peoples, I got in contact with him actually before I officially got my own job. “He’s got a million ideas,” she said of Porter, “and he’ll be able to execute about 500,000 of them because he’s got enormous energy.” The energy — and anger and self-acknowledged catharsis — that Porter has poured into his many writings has sometimes provoked spirited disagreement among his colleagues. This was especially so upon publication of “The Demise of the Ongwehoweh and the Rise of the Native Americans: Redressing the Genocidal Act of Forcing American Citizenship upon Indigenous Peoples,” Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal(1999). But in response to scholarly criticism of “The Demise,” Porter hardly backed down: “To be Ongwehoweh [means] that the language and ceremonies of our ancestors are alive and well in Indian people now living, and not simply the spiritual equivalent of the White Man’s god wrapped in buckskin and beads,” he wrote. “The first part of ‘The Demise’ is rooted in history. It is a brief summary of the primary ways in which the United States during the late 19th Century inflicted upon Indigenous peoples conditions that were designed to destroy their unique identity and assimilate them into American society. I refer to these methods as the Four Horsemen of the Indian Apocalypse: Western education, Christianity, land allotment, and American citizenship.” Yet here is Porter, a man who recently affixed Odawi to his name, a man of two conflicting legal worlds: a Harvard-educated lawyer who has also served as attorney general of the Seneca Nation and chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Sac & Fox Nation of Missouri. “I believe in the idea of lawyering. It’s true to our own Seneca tradition,” said Porter. “One of our more famous chiefs — Red Jacket, from the American Revolutionary War period — was a vocal critic of missionaries and colonists and the selling of land. He and others used the power of their words and ideas to represent and advocate for our nation, every bit as much as warriors who took up the rifle and the hatchet. “As for law in the Anglo-American sense, I try to take what is in the best of that tradition — the advising, the consulting, the healing,” Porter said, adding that there is inherent danger in the indiscriminate application of American law to the Indian context. “When you pick up the tool of the colonizer, when you kiss the ring before you get justice,” he said, “you can wind up doing bad when you think you’re doing good.” PROFESSIONAL BALANCE Porter said he maintains a professional balance by keeping a cultural perspective. There are merely 1,500 American Indian lawyers in the United States, he noted, only 15 of whom are law professors and only five of whom have worked with an Indian nation law environment. As a result, he said, “There really is no think tank that deals with Indian policy, no institution that tries to find ways of challenging orthodoxy. For instance, law schools have done a poor job of explaining the fact that there are three sovereigns in American law: the 50 states, the federal system, and 558 different Indian nations.” Among Porter’s supporters is Rennard Strickland, founding director of the Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy at the University of Oklahoma and currently a at the University of Oregon School of Law. He also praised Syracuse Law for establishing the Center of Indigenous Citizenship, Law and Governance. “Close to the heart of New York’s historic Indian County, Syracuse University is an ideal place for the center,” said Strickland. “The great and powerful Indian sovereigns of this area continue to have tremendous influence.” Porter said he considers his new post — and with it, his homecoming — as both fortunate and fortuitous. “It was sort of unexpected that the folks at Syracuse made the decision they did to bring me aboard, to establish this center,” said Porter, who earned an undergraduate degree in political science and economics from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “It’s a real meshing of professional and personal interest. This is a great opportunity to get back to what I think of as home.” The last time he came home was to add his middle name, said Porter, whose first and last names reflect missionary influence on his family. “I went through the longhouse ceremony a couple of years ago,” said Porter, “and was given my real name, Odawi.” In the Seneca language, Odawi means someone who is given something.

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