July 2, 1997

David Case

After India and Vietnam, lawyer David Case came to Alaska and made himself an expert in Indian law. (Anchorage Daily News photo by Jim Lavrakas)

Case wrote the book on Indian law

By Sheila Toomey
Daily News reporter

''In general, Indian law is not complicated. It's just ambiguous.''

Only David Case, the Anchorage lawyer who literally wrote the book on Indian law in Alaska, could get away with such an assertion.

His ''Alaska Natives and American Laws,'' published in 1984, was the first comprehensive effort to explain the place of Alaska Natives in the unique, and quite complicated, relationship between the United States and indigenous Americans. It quickly became a how-to guide for lawyers and laypeople working in the field.

Indian law is not just Case's speciality. It's his passion.

''It connects on a lot of levels,'' he said. ''Intellectual is one. It connects with your heart on another. And, it's right.''

Case came of age in the altruistic '60s. He collected a college degree in philosophy and joined the Peace Corps in 1966. After two years in rural India, he returned home to find himself at odds with the tempo of 1968 mainstream America.

''India was a country of villages. Things moved at a different pace, a more human pace,'' he said. ''I got off the plane at LaGuardia and went into (New York City) and things were moving at 80 miles an hour. The adjustment to America was more difficult than the adjustment to India had been.''

The next year he learned to be careful what he wished for. He found himself in another country of villages -- Vietnam. Through ''dumb luck,'' namely knowing how to type, draftee Case ended up ''a protocol officer for a bunch of generals,'' thus avoiding combat and perhaps death.

So there he was in 1971, a 27-year-old law student at the University of Washington, not far from the farmland where he grew up, helping to draft a tribal code for yet another group of villagers. Oddly enough, they were also called ''Indians,'' misnamed so by fans of Christopher Columbus.

They called themselves the Suquamish.

According to Case, that's all it took. He was hooked for life on American Indian law. He headed for Fairbanks in 1974, right out of law school, to work as a Vista volunteer for Alaska Legal Services. In 1975-77 he directed a Native Bush justice project for the Alaska Federation of Natives, an examination of the delivery of courts, cops and corrections in Bush Alaska.

Now, 20 years later, he is a partner in an Anchorage law firm, the lawyer for about 20 rural villages and municipalities, a judge in the tax court of Venetie, a major player in the tribal sovereignty movement and widely regarded as the leading scholar on Indian law in Alaska.

You say you don't get the whole idea of Indian law? Why don't they have the same law as everyone else? Case has a 50-minute rap that makes the philosophy, if not the nuances, clear to anyone. It starts with the European legal principle, well established before settlement of the American colonies, that said land was ''uninhabited,'' no matter how many people lived on it, if all they did was hunt and fish.

That made it necessary for 17th and 18th century thinkers, many of whom Case considers profound and moral, to invent a legal concept that allowed the subsistence societies of the new world -- the ''uninhabitants'' -- to keep possession of the land where they lived.

Over the centuries Indian law developed the way all law does -- case by case, abuse by abuse, remedy by remedy. A pope declared Indians human. A Supreme Court justice said they were nations -- not foreign nations but dependent nations subject to the oversight of the federal government.

Case's exposition is passionate, sprinkled with readings from historical documents, his intensity still apparent after all these years.

''The law that we have evolved relating to Native Americans is unique,'' he said, ''different than that which relates to any non-Native Americans. ... It really is striking, and people almost gasp when they read the words that the early courts and lawmakers wrestled with.

''I don't buy that the interest of the Native people and the interests of the state have to be at odds,'' he said. ''It doesn't have to be antagonistic. ... Usually after 20 years of litigation in the Lower 48, it becomes cooperative. You just hope we don't have to go through that.''

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