Did You Know There Are 22 Tribes in New Mexico?

Lynn Slade does and has made it his life’s work to understand Indian law

Published in 2010 Southwest Super Lawyers — May 2010

Any lawyer can tell you how to handle a case on U.S. soil. But on Indian land? That’s another story.

Lynn Slade understands those challenges better than most––he’s been handling cases on tribal land for decades. “There’s a difference in the legal environment that you’re functioning in,” Slade says. “The law that’s applicable to transactions in a state is state law. But if you’re dealing with a tribe in any state, the law that’s applicable is primarily federal law and tribal law with some fit for state law.”

Slade, a partner at Modrall Sperling in Albuquerque, has worked with the firm’s Indian law service group since his mentor, Jim Sperling, asked for his help in the late-1970s. Slade and his colleagues work with clients ranging from state agencies to energy developers to utilities on their activities on Indian lands nationwide and have built one of the most respected such practices in the nation. “The group I work with has been involved in over 20 states doing Indian law for businesses and non-Indian governments,” he says. “We advise about the law and regulations––what environmental laws you may need to comply with, for example; we negotiate, structure and draft agreements to allow energy or economic development, and we litigate.”

Slade and company recently represented the Oklahoma Tax Commission in a case revolving around the question of whether an Osage Nation reservation still exists in Osage County, Okla. “Conventional wisdom has been that since Oklahoma’s statehood, there are no remaining reservations in Oklahoma,” he says. “The Osage Nation contends it does still have a 1.5 million-acre reservation, and therefore anyone who earns income and lives within the county and is a member of the Osage Nation does not have to pay Oklahoma income tax.”

Slade and his team presented evidence that historians, government officials and local residents agreed that the reservation was terminated in 1906, meaning that the state taxes were still valid. The district court ruled in the Tax Commission’s favor, and the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed the decision in March of 2010.

Slade’s success has come in part because he understands the complexities of living among different cultures. “I was raised in New Mexico, where you do get experience with numerous Indian communities. There are 22 tribes in New Mexico,” he says. After working in connection with those communities for decades, “I’ve learned that they’re all very different, and all have interesting and, in their own way, important cultures that I have to take into account in my work,” says Slade. “It’s necessary to understand that community and culture to be effective.”

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