Homecoming full circle
A boyhood dream to become a lawyer seemed almost out of reach for Matthew L.M. Fletcher, BA ’94/JD ’97, who grew up in Potawatomi and Ottawa Indian country in Southwest Michigan during the 1970s and ’80s. Those were hard-scrabble times, and many tribe members struggled to survive.
“My family expected me to go to college, which was unusual for a lot of Native people who come from underprivileged backgrounds,” Fletcher says. “My parents were working class, so we were very lucky compared to many of my cousins who were unemployed, undereducated, and pretty poor. We took nothing for granted.”
With his ambition trained on the University of Michigan, Fletcher earned good grades in public school and excelled on his high school debate team. However, he was not quite prepared for campus life in Ann Arbor when he started his freshman year in fall 1990.
“It was very much a culture shock,” Fletcher recalls. “This is a place of incredible privilege, and many people were completely unaware of what it was like to be a Native person ― or that there even were Native people on campus. To be truthful, I kept my head down, did my work, and tried to muddle through.”
Four years later, Fletcher completed his undergraduate degree with a major in English and went on to earn his Juris Doctorate degree at the Law School, fulfilling his youthful ambition to become a lawyer.
This fall his life came full circle — academically and personally — as he returned to U-M.
Fletcher is the Harry Burns Hutchins Collegiate Professor of Law, an endowed professorship honoring the former dean of the Law School who also served as the University’s fourth president. Fletcher also is professor of American culture and Native American studies in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts.
“I feel like this is kind of a homecoming,” he says. “It’s a dream come true to teach at U-M. It’s a great school.”
Reflecting on his student days at Michigan, Fletcher recalls watching the Fab Five etch their names in basketball history at Crisler Arena and sitting in the bleachers at Michigan Stadium with his father and younger brother, rooting for the Wolverines.
Yet even in the midst of 100,000 cheering Michigan fans, Fletcher felt like an outsider. “There were very few Native students when I was at the Law School,” he says. But he found his community once he joined the editorial staff of the Michigan Journal of Race and Law, a student-run legal publication that explores issues related to race, law, and civil rights. “At the journal, I found like-minded people of color.”
The editorial work at the journal helped to prepare Fletcher for his legal career.
“[It’s] where I learned how to write, edit, read, and research legal articles and essays,” Fletcher says. “It was important for me socially as well as for my professional development as a lawyer.”
During this time, he also began scouring U-M archives for any clues about his family’s historical ties to the University.
“Many people don’t know their history,” says Fletcher, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.“It was important to me to try to figure out what my connection was to U-M while I was here on campus.”
Fletcher’s sleuthing turned up some surprises about his ancestors who, it turns out, have attended U-M since the 1900s.According to Bentley Historical Library archivist Brian Williams, it appears Fletcher’s great-great uncle, George Mamagona, was the first Native American from Michigan to attend U-M. He was enrolled from 1908-11, but did not earn a degree. Williams discovered another Native American student who attended U-M from 1908-09 (and also did not graduate). Benjamin Hunter Dwight was a full-blooded Choctaw and a chief from Oklahoma who went on to earn degrees at Columbia and Stanford.
U-M began officially recognizing Native American students in 1932 when the University established scholarships for “American Indians,” Williams says. The scholarship recipients were recommended to U-M by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The first student on one of the “American Indian” scholarships to graduate appears to be Arthur Leo Biggins (AB 1942, Business 1949, Law 1952).
Nearly a dozen of Fletcher’s relatives who are tribal members have earned U-M degrees over the last century.
“For Native people, this is a huge accomplishment because so few are able to leave their reservation and comfortably matriculate at a school like Michigan,” he says.
Defender of rights
As he embarked on his career, Fletcher knew he wanted to have an immediate impact on individuals. A large portion of his scholarship and advocacy involved the defense of the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 federal law enacted to address the disproportionate number of Native American children who were being removed from their families and placed in the child-welfare system. The statute gives tribal governments greater control over child-custody proceedings involving Native children living on and off reservations.
“A number of my relatives who were taken from their homes by state and child-welfare systems and adopted out into non-Indian homes, were lost forever,” Fletcher says. “I felt this was a place where I wanted to contribute and make a difference.”The attorney’s early legal practice framed his scholarly work and inspired numerous articles on American Indian tribal law, tribal courts, and how the U.S. Supreme Court views tribal laws and tribal courts.
In 2004, Fletcher launched his academic career as a law professor at the University of North Dakota. In 2006, he joined the law faculty of the Michigan State University College of Law where he taught until 2022.
In North Dakota, Fletcher also started his judicial career as an appellate judge for a North Dakota tribe. Today, he is a chief justice for two tribes and an appellate judge for 13 tribes. Since 2005, he has written more than 50 appellate opinions.
“I learned the broad contours of contract and constitutional law at the Michigan Law School,” Fletcher explains. “But tribes can choose to modify these traditional rules of law as they see fit and make significant changes that emphasize their culture and traditions. They are cutting-edge laboratories of American democracy.”
Fletcher’s judicial decisions and classroom teaching largely center around Anishinaabe legal and political philosophies, which are prevalent in tribal courts. Anishinaabe refers to a group of culturally and linguistically related First Nations that live in both Canada and the United States, concentrated around the Great Lakes.
“This is an alternate way to view the universe that permeates all the work I’ve done,” says Fletcher. His middle name, Migiziwas, references the eagle clan (migizi dodem), which is responsible for dealing with an Anishinaabe nation’s external relations.
Past to present
The dearth of scholarship about what Native Americans are doing in the 21st century often leads to misperceptions, according to Fletcher.
“Lots of people think of Indians and Indigenous people as being part of the past rather than part of the present,” he says. “The notion of the vanishing Indian continues to be prevalent in our society, and I often get questions about whether Indian people and tribal reservations still exist. Most people are unaware of Indigenous philosophies, so they are skeptical or even hostile toward them.”
He teaches courses on Federal Indian Law and Tribal Law at the Michigan Law School as well as classes on tribal law in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. In the winter term, he will teach a small seminar, titled “Reservation Dogs and the Law,” focusing on the FX Productions series, “Reservation Dogs,” created by American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo.
“I want to have a generation of students who are not so nervous about Indian people,” Fletcher says. “Students have a lot to learn from Indigenous cultures and philosophies. Michigan Law graduates will need this background in tribal law later in their practices.”
Meanwhile, the Fletcher family’s century-long, maize-and-blue tradition has been passed down to the next generation. Fletcher’s nephew, Nolan Fletcher, became a sophomore at Michigan this fall.
(Lead image credit: Evan Cobb.)
Joe Blanco - 1992
Absolutely awesome. Very important to highlight this story. My son is a senior at UM and I wish he would hear more stories like this. Thank you- Go Blue
Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes - n/a
I am very happy to be Professor Fletcher’s colleague in the Department of American Culture in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA), where he holds an appointment in the Native American Studies Program.
Gerald (Gerry) Ahronheim - LS&A 1962, Med.1966
Excellent and heartwarming tale.
One hopes Prof. Fletcher’s trajectory will be emulated many times, with fewer obstacles and more welcoming.
A blessing for further success.
Val Edwards - 1971
Very impressive article. I was mesmerized by the details and so fascinated with the genealogy portion. I agree with Joe Blanco that this information should be highlighted in students’ education. Keep up the good work. Go Blue.
Marilyn Roubidoux - Professor, Michigan Medicine 1992
Wonderful and interesting article and the genealogy information. Keep the Native Students coming to Michigan!
Sarah Newland - LSA 1991
I was so interested to read this important article, and am very happy that Matthew Fletcher is here at the Law School. Thank you for publishing.
Christopher Bell - 1973; MSW 1994
Congratulations Matthew!! You continue to amaze us all. It’s been 16+ years since we met and talked up at the Native law center you founded at MSU. It was great reading about not only your own tremendous accomplishments but the ones of your ancestors going back over a 100 years!
My mother attended U-M in the late 1930s and was only aware of one other Indian student at that time. I was shocked to learn last week at NASAs 50th anniversary that they were formed my senior year–in those days of no internet and no student e-mails, one could only learn of such things on a flyer on a kiosk or the Union bulletin board. As such, I didn’t learn of NASA until the early 1980s.
Anyway, congratulations on a well-earned achievement. Until the next time, be well!
Henry Austin - 1978, BS Forestry, SIU-Carbondale, I’ll.
Congratulations on your accomplishments Professor Fletcher! You are an inspiration for countless others to succeed in their chosen fields and trades!!