By Sheila Pursglove
Bryan Newland set his sights on the law from his childhood in the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“Growing up, it always seemed like everybody in my family was talking about the law and politics. I always wanted to join in those conversations, and I always had an opinion about the subject of the day,” he says. “As I got older, I became more interested in matters of fairness, and public policy. The law seemed to be a natural fit for my interests.”
The first student to enter the Indigenous Law Program at Michigan State University College of Law, he graduated magna cum laude with a certificate in Indigenous Law in 2007. Now an attorney with Fletcher PLLC in Lansing, he has devoted his career to fighting for Indian tribal rights, and has been heavily involved in the political arena at the state and national level.
In 2008, he served as the Michigan Native Vote Coordinator for Obama’s campaign.
“I liked to remind people in the President’s administration that I delivered Michigan’s electoral votes for the President,” he says with a smile. “Sen. McCain’s campaign dropped out of Michigan the day after I signed up – the connection is pretty clear to me.”
Joining the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team in December 2008, Newland spent three years as counselor and then senior policy adviser to the Assistant Secretary–Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, advising on issues ranging from gaming and land policies to energy and treaty rights.
“My job was really a dream job for somebody like me,” he says. “I worked with a team of very intelligent and committed policymakers, and we had the chance to work with tribal leaders from around the country. We also had the opportunity to work on some of the most cutting-edge issues facing Indian tribes: land acquisition and development, treaty rights, and economic development.”
Newland worked to reform the Department’s policies on tribal-state gaming compacts, and helped lead efforts to acquire nearly 200,000 acres of land in trust for tribes and for individual Indians. He spearheaded the effort to reform the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ regulations governing leasing on Indian lands, and worked to ensure passage of the HEARTH (Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership) Act of 2012.
“The biggest highlight of my time in D.C. was standing in the Oval Office as President Obama signed the HEARTH Act into law,” he says. “It’s a bill I spent a lot of time working on, and it restores the inherent power of Indian tribes to control the use of their lands through leasing.”
In 2012, Newland moved back to Michigan and joined Fletcher, PLLC in Lansing, a national firm providing legal and consulting services to Indian tribes and other clients on a wide range of issues.
“Our firm does some really exciting work,” he says. “We advise Indian tribes around the country on so many issues – from gaming to human resources. We provide legal counsel to tribes on particular matters, but we also serve as strategic advisers to help tribes navigate the political process.”
He is currently working with a tribe to negotiate a tribal-state gaming compact.
“It’s incredibly interesting, because the agreement shapes the boundaries of power between the tribe and the state when it comes to the regulation of casino gaming,” he explains. “This involves complex legal questions about the interplay between federal, tribal, and state law. It involves questions of public policy – both from the tribal and the state standpoint. And it involves raw politics.”
Admitted to practice in Michigan, and with the Matche-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi Indians and Nottawaseppi Band of the Huron Potawatomi, Newland was elected last month to serve as chief judge of the Bay Mills Indian Community Tribal Court, which hears cases from traffic violations to child custody and divorce to juvenile cases to adult criminal cases.
“My family moved back to Michigan to get more involved in our tribal community, and I’m very excited and honored by this opportunity,” he says. “I’ll be driving from Lansing to Bay Mills, in the U.P., about once a week to hear cases.”
A featured speaker at a number of events, Newland is a regular contributor to the TurtleTalk Indian Law Blog, and authored a regular column “On My Fishbox,” for the Bay Mills News, which garnered him a National Native American Journalists Association Award for Best Column Writing (Monthly).
A recent appointee to the MSU Law Board of Trustees, Newland will teach “Tribal Economic Development” as an adjunct professor in the 2014 spring semester.
“I’m excited to work with students, and to share my experiences,” he says. “I’m also excited about the opportunity to take a closer look into a lot of these legal issues – I expect I will learn as much as my students.”
Newland and his wife Erica live in DeWitt near Lansing, with their children, Graydon, 9, and Meredith, 7.
“My hope for my children is that they find fulfillment, and that they give to their communities. I want them to always be connected to our home in Bay Mills, no matter where they live,” he says. “As for our tribe, I want our children to stand on the shoulders of their ancestors and make our community a place where people can make a living, live a life, and continue to share with one another.”
Not one for many hobbies – “I’m probably the least-handy person you’ve ever met,” he says with a smile – he enjoys attending his children’s games, and spending time with his family.
“I’m a sports fanatic, and I’m always praying that this is ‘the year’ for both the Detroit Lions and the Spartans. I’m also starting some interesting volunteer projects related to MSU with a few friends, but we aren’t ready to announce what they are yet.”