The Life and Career of Rennard Strickland: Philip H. Knight Professor of Law and former Dean of the University of Oregon School of Law
by Jen Woods
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"When I was in law school, I think it would be safe to say there was no one who hated law school any more than I did. The thought that I would spend my entire life in an institution like law school was something that really didn't occur to me," said Strickland, who is now the Philip H. Knight Professor of Law at the University of Oregon School of Law.
It wasn't the subject that Strickland disliked; it was the way courses were taught. Law school in the 1960s, according to Strickland, was a "very sadistic system that was designed to humiliate or, if not humiliate, at least expose the weaknesses [of students] in a very public manner."
However, Strickland did not become disgruntled because of his experience. Instead, he saw an opportunity to make a difference in legal education. Today, he is considered a pioneer in introducing Indian law into the university curriculum, and he is the only person to have received both the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) Award (1979) and the American Bar Association's Spirit of Excellence Award (1997).
"Remember that your first job is not your last job," Strickland said. There are many opportunities to work with tribes, state agencies, and universities. "If you are really interested in working with Indian people and Indian law, the more kinds of experiences and the broader range of experiences you have, the more you will ultimately contribute to the development of Indian law and the advancement of the Indian people," he added.
Strickland's interest in Native American culture and history comes as no surprise, considering his heritage. His parents were Osage and Cherokee Native Americans, and he grew up in "Indian Country" (Muskogee, OK).
Strickland was also exposed to Native American culture throughout his years in college. He earned his B.A. at Northeastern State University, which was founded by the Cherokee tribe in the 19th century. The school currently has the largest enrollment of Native American students of any public institution of higher education.
Strickland went on to earn his J.D. from the University of Virginia, his M.A. from the University of Arkansas, and his S.J.D. from the University of Virginia.
Immediately after law school, Strickland began his career as a graduate teaching fellow at the University of Arkansas School of Law. He has also taught at the University of West Florida, St. Mary's University, the University of Tulsa (where he also served as acting dean for one year), the University of Washington, and the University of Wisconsin. In 1985, Strickland served as a professor and dean at the Southern Illinois University School of Law. From 1990 to1995, he was the director of the Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy and a professor at the University of Oklahoma. From 1995 to 1997, he served as Dean of the Oklahoma City University College of Law, and from 1997 to 2002, he served as Dean of the University of Oregon School of Law.
Strickland said working with young people is one of the highlights of his job. "I think at this moment, at the beginning of the 21st century, we have better law students that we have had any time in the previous 40 years that I have been teaching," he said, adding that it is rewarding knowing that he has helped shape their views of the profession.
Indian law presents unique challenges. For example, Strickland said he believes that many Americans have misconceptions about Native Americans. Just because a few tribes have opened successful and prosperous casinos, many people believe that every Native American is making millions of dollars, which simply is not true, he said.
In order to help inform the public, Strickland has written and edited more than 35 books about Native American history and culture. He is often cited for his work as Editor-in-Chief of The Handbook of Federal Indian Law, which was written by Felix S. Cohen. The book is highly regarded and considered by many to be the "Bible of Indian law."
He is currently working on a book called Spirit Red. The book, expected to hit bookstores in three years, includes biographies of 50 key Native American leaders.
Strickland's work with Indian law goes far beyond the classroom. He has helped resolve many significant Indian law cases. For instance, he served as the Chair and Arbitrator of the Osage Constitutional Commission. During that time, he drafted the Osage National Constitution, which was approved by the votes of more than 65% of the tribal electorate.
In addition, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs appointed Strickland to chair a team of three Indian law experts from the University of Wisconsin Law School. The team drafted a report on a fishing rights controversy that led to a peaceful resolution.
Strickland has helped many tribes and museums resolve legal conflicts regarding skeletal remains and sacred objects. He has also served as an expert witness in several federal court cases, including the Creek Nation gaming case.
Strickland has been an active member of the American Bar Association since 1974, and he was President of the Association of American Law Schools in 1994. He is the first person to have served as both President of the Association of American Law Schools and Chair of the Law School Admission Council.
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