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American Indians look abroad to expand legal horizons

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It's a problem common to indigenous peoples everywhere - from the Australian outback to American Indian reservations: To salvage what remains of their ancient cultures and homelands, they find they have to work through the same legal systems that have consistently threatened that heritage.

As interpreted by an international panel of indigenous leaders at a recent American Indian Law Conference at Harvard, this means:

* Expanding legal horizons to include international law and taking cues from such controversial groups as the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua, who have had mixed success in pressing their cases for self-determination before world forums.

* Challenging the over-conciliatory attitude that has characterized attorneys representing Indians and that has helped shape precedents for Indian law.

* Channeling tougher cases toward legislative reform rather than through the courts where, with what is seen as a conservative shift in the Supreme Court, Indian cases may make less headway.

International law, says Robert T. Coulter, executive director of the Indian Resource Center in Washington, ''is the alternative to the same old legal approach.''

Mr. Coulter explains that while the American Indians are veterans of the US legal system - fighting for land, water, and mineral rights as well as human rights - their long line of concessions in court has eroded their rights as sovereign governments. Early treaties recognized the tribes as separate nations.

This erosion, he says, resulted from attorneys' concessions ''that the ball game is over when the Supreme Court declares something,'' as in the Black Hills, S.D., land claim case, which the court refused to hear. Another problem, he adds , is the Indians' incomplete understanding of their own legal rights.

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