Walking Tall

Riyaz A. Kanji goes to bat for tribal clients

Published in 2015 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine

By RJ Smith on September 1, 2015


Riyaz A. Kanji stands at his Michigan-made Steelcase treadmill desk, eyes forward. He’s wearing shorts, running shoes, a casual shirt. An office treadmill is a great way to expend a lot of energy without going anywhere, but Kanji has already traveled an impressively long distance to get to his office at Kanji & Katzen in Ann Arbor.

He was born in 1964 Kampala, Uganda, just two years after the city became the new capital of the recently independent Uganda. Kanji’s East Asian family had been in Africa for three generations, and his father was a prominent doctor who had helped found a medical school. But by the mid-1960s, Idi Amin and political violence were on the rise. Some cabinet members were his father’s patients, and they began telling him he should leave as soon as possible. They did—first to England, then Ontario, Canada, before finally settling in the United States.

“My parents sacrificed a tremendous amount in order to move the family to a place where their kids would grow up in good conditions,” he says. “For them, that really meant an education. They’d come out of a very nice life in East Africa, and have very fond memories—their grandparents and aunts and uncles told stories of ocean-side life in Tanzania and the great food and all the rest—but they all left for the sake of the next generation.

“I had a responsibility to not let it all go to waste, and to learn all I could.”

Kanji studied social studies at Harvard, got a law degree from Yale, then clerked with U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. While Souter’s public image is of a somewhat shy and bookish man, up close, says Kanji, he was “hands down the best storyteller I’ve ever met.”

Most days, as he walks on the treadmill, Kanji looks at a black-and-white picture of a Native American woman in the 1930s roasting clams and cockles over a fire. The photograph was used as an exhibit in a case Kanji worked on early in his career—a trial that set him on the course he follows today. He was working at Evergreen Legal Services in Seattle when he was brought into United States v. Washington. Federal treaties from the 1800s gave Washington tribes the right to harvest shellfish in assorted waters, but for many decades, the state had been limiting those rights. In 1997, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals substantially ruled in favor of the tribal groups Kanji represented. He kept the picture next to his computer every day of the trial, and it’s been close to him ever since. “It serves both as a reminder of a way of life that we are still trying to preserve, and as a good luck omen,” he says.

Since then, Kanji has represented the Seneca Nation and other tribes in cases in which states sought to encroach on tribal rights, and he’s been active in a recent wave of environmental cases. Federal law lets tribes set their own environmental standards, and some states have been fighting them when they differ from what the state would prefer.

When legal aid services took a beating in the late 1990s, Kanji and colleague Phil Katzen created Kanji & Katzen to focus on Native American law. Katzen stayed in Seattle, while Kanji opened up an office in Ann Arbor.

“He brings a combination of passion and academic sensibility to his work,” says Jim Bransky, general counsel for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. “He has a keen, even temperament.” Kanji also brings what Branksy calls “a Canadian toughness to the table. Once, in the dead of winter on a frigid day, he showed up in a Michigan court of appeals ready for oral argument with just a suit coat on—not even a coat. Another time, after some serious engagement in court, he found it necessary to unwind by going out afterwards and playing a few games of hockey.”

Currently, Kanji is involved with the Tribal Supreme Court Project, a national organization of lawyers and scholars who work with tribes to protect their rights at the U.S. Supreme Court level. He also worked with Congress as it passed an extension of the Violence Against Women Act after questions arose regarding whether tribal law could be brought to bear on domestic abusers on tribal lands.

One of the biggest challenges of his job, Kanji says, is that “the vast majority of people in the country, including some judges and lawyers, do not have a full understanding of the basic principles of tribal sovereignty and the federal Indian laws that govern what we do.” He finds himself spending a lot of time explaining the basics to people who might not even think, for example, that there are any tribes left. 

“Some folks don’t want to hear [about tribal history],” Kanji says, “given U.S. history—people don’t necessarily want to be reminded about the bad parts. It’s human nature.” But the effort pays off. “It’s nice how when we explain these core principles, you can really see a light go off in their heads.”

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