Battle tested: Indian law attorney fights for sovereign rights of tribes


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Zeke Fletcher recalls his grandmother’s stories of how land was taken away from many Indian families in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“She believed that if there had been more Indian lawyers, that would not have happened,” he says.   

Today’s tribes are fortunate to have advocates in attorneys like Fletcher, owner of Fletcher Law firm in Lansing.

Fletcher, who followed his older brother Matthew into law, advises tribal governments, gaming operations, businesses, and gaming commissions regarding self-governance, gaming, fee-to-trust, tax, economic
development and diversification, child welfare, and inter-governmental negotiations and agreements with state and local governments.      

“The biggest case we have before us is the Bay Mills case,” says Fletcher, referring to Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, a dispute over a controversial off-reservation Indian casino. At issue is whether a federal court has jurisdiction to enjoin activity that violates the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), but takes place outside of Indian lands; and whether tribal sovereign immunity bars a state from suing in federal court to enjoin a tribe from violating IGRA outside of Indian lands.

“The Supreme Court should be issuing an opinion on that any time now,” Fletcher says. “Good, bad or indifferent, this case will decide how tribes are treated as sovereigns – it goes to an Indian tribe’s ability to claim sovereign immunity in the context of gaming.     

“Tied to that is land – the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 established a system and policy for the U.S. government to take land into trust for Indian tribes so it’s protected and can’t be taken away,” he explains.

“But the problem is, the Supreme Court and many local and state governments are opposing that policy because they don’t want Indian tribes to have land that is protected from taxes and from state and local
jurisdiction. That’s a big battle, a big issue many Indian tribes across the country are facing.”    

Fletcher, who has presented at several Indian law conferences and written law review articles on various topics of federal Indian law, has previously served as chairperson for the State Bar of Michigan’s American Indian Law Section, where he worked to provide awareness of Indian Law issues.

“The work, and contacts made, were very important,” he says. “Indian Law is a very niche area, and when it comes to interactions with the State, people may not always give a lot of attention to the Indian Law section.”

He is also a member of the State Bar Standing Committee on American Indian Law, and a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Indian Law Section. Fletcher’s career path started with undergrad studies at Grand Valley State University, a varsity golf team member after a sterling performance at Wayland High School, near Grand Rapids, where he was individual Class B state co-champion for the Wildcats in 1997, carding an 18-hole score of 74 in the finals match.    

Recognizing that dreams of a PGA tour were unrealistic, he transferred from GVSU to the University of Michigan to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science.

“I’d always had an interest in government, and with an eye on going to law school I thought a political science background would be good,” he says. “I enjoyed the friendships forged at U-M, and the level of intellectual capacity in my roommates and classmates — I’d never been around that much brain power, and really enjoyed it.”   

Earning his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School, he was a member of the National Native American Law Students Association, Indigenous Law Students Association, and the Moot Court.

He clerked for the Wisconsin Legislative Council and served as a judicial intern for Hon. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, Wisconsin Supreme Court, before working as an associate at Honigman in Detroit, and then as a partner at Rosette Law, an Indian law firm based out of Chandler, Ariz.   

During his undergrad years, Fletcher interned in the legal department of his own tribe, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians based in Peshawbestown on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula.
He later worked there as a staff attorney, and more recently as a contractual general counsel.

“I always enjoyed the work,” he says. “I felt I owed a lot to my tribe, in terms of them helping me with experience and scholarships. I’m grateful and I felt that was a way I could give back.”    

Representing tribes and other tribal entities in federal, state, and tribal court in litigation and in administrative proceedings, he is admitted to practice in the Tribal Courts of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi Indians; Muscogee (Creek) Nation; Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians; Ponca Tribe of Nebraska; Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma; and Nottawaseppi Band of the Huron Potawatomi; as well as the state and federal courts of Michigan and Wisconsin; and is counsel to the Gun Lake Tribe.   

Fletcher makes his home in East Lansing, where he enjoys playing golf, and spending time with his wife, Katie, and children Nolan, Ben and Laura.

“Indian communities look to the seventh generation – how what you’re doing today impacts seven generations from now,” he says. “I can’t claim in any respect that I always do that as it’s very difficult to do, but I attempt to think about that and hope that with the upbringing I’m giving my children, that they’ll learn from my mistakes and pass that knowledge on to their kids and grandchildren.”