Part 1: Beginnings
“The coming of the white people and the treaties with them are not distant, hazy memories but sharp occurrences, just yesterday.” Those words, which University of Colorado Moses Lasky Professor of Law Emeritus Charles Wilkinson wrote in a 2005 book, reflect the perspective and understanding that Wilkinson gained during almost 50 years since he first came to Boulder and joined the Native American Rights Fund in October 1971.
During that near half-century, Wilkinson built a legacy as one of the nation’s foremost scholars of the peoples, public lands and waters of the West. In addition to writing 14 books and nearly five dozen scholarly articles, he has been a faculty member at the University of Colorado School of Law since 1987 and, before that, taught for 12 years at the University of Oregon Law School.
“Charles has been a pathbreaking paragon of modern engaged scholarship on Indian, water and public land law, as well as a great storyteller, illuminating key events and trends across those fields, including where they intersect,” said John Leshy, the Emeritus Harry D. Sunderland and Distinguished Professor of Real Property Law at the University of California-Hastings College of Law and a former Solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior. “Everyone who practices in these fields owes him a debt of gratitude, whether they know it or not.”
Wilkinson’s fascination with the West and its native societies seems like an unlikely outcome for a boy born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and raised in Bronxville, N.Y. His path began by reading the newspaper. A devoted fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he made a habit of spreading the daily gazette across the living room of his family’s home. “It drove my mother crazy,” Wilkinson said.
That ritual led to a revelation. “In May 1954 I saw the headline ‘Supreme Court outlaws school discrimination,’” Wilkinson said. “I was so excited. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer.’” After graduating from high school, Wilkinson headed to Ohio’s Denison University and, after earning his undergraduate degree, to Stanford Law School. “I’d never heard of California,” he said. “No one even knew where that was. I said, ‘I’m going to go to law school where the Dodgers are.’”
He didn’t like the law. “It was really just a large study of business,” Wilkinson said. That changed not long after graduation. After a spell at Lewis Roca, then a firm with a single outpost in Phoenix, and at Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon in San Francisco, the future CU Distinguished Professor made a life-altering decision. He met with David Getches, who would become his CU faculty colleague, best friend and, at that time, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, and John Echohawk, NARF’s founder. He decided to represent the nation’s indigenous civilizations. “I’d never met an Indian,” Wilkinson said. “I just said, ‘I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy’ – and a lot of people said I was – ‘but I think I‘m going to do this.’”
He began his work at NARF on Oct. 4, 1971 and, soon after, found himself helping Wisconsin’s Menominee Tribe obtain renewed recognition as an Indian tribe under federal law. “This was in the middle of the termination era, when Congress was going to sell the reservations off and be done with the ‘Indian problem,’” Wilkinson said. “They were in danger of having big companies come into this good timber and take it out of Indian hands.” The process of obtaining Congressional repeal of the termination legislation affecting the tribe that was enacted during the 1950s was already “going full bore” when Wilkinson joined NARF and he soon found himself working with Ada Deer, a Menominee who led the fight against the liquidation of the tribe’s lands, to secure the repeal bill that would reverse the tribe’s termination. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Within two months at NARF I was drafting a bill in Congress. I’d never even conceived of drafting a bill. It was really public law.”
Since then, Wilkinson’s impact on Indian law has been colossal. After the repeal of the Menominee Tribe’s termination as a federally recognized tribe in 1973, Wilkinson began working on behalf of other tribes, this time in the Pacific Northwest. He represented the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Klamath Tribes. Wilkinson helped the Siletz regain recognition, just as he had for the Menominee. “This time I was their lead lawyer, by far, making hundreds of trips back to DC and so forth,” he said. Wilkinson also took on a fight against unequal treatment of Navajo youth on the tribe’s sprawling homeland. “There was discrimination all over the place,” he said. “We brought a big case on that and won.”
Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado journalist Hank Lacey, a former practicing attorney, studied under John Leshy, and was his research assistant, while a student at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He has known, and been a personal friend of, Reed Benson since 1993. Lacey became acquainted with Charles Wilkinson at a 1992 book signing.