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Legitimizing American Indian Sovereignty: Mobilizing the Constitutive Power of Law through Institutional Entrepreneurship

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Extensive sociolegal scholarship has addressed the utility of law as a mechanism through which marginalized groups may promote social change. Within this debate, scholars employing the legal mobilization approach have thus far highlighted law's indirect impact, beyond the formal arenas of law, via effects on the “legal consciousness” of reformers and would-be reformers. This article contributes to this debate, and the legal mobilization framework in particular, by theoretically identifying and empirically documenting ways through which the constitutive power of law may be effectively used by challengers to more directly pursue changes in institutionalized practices themselves. The article examines the strategic use of law by a set of American Indian tribal leaders in the state of Washington who, over a 13-year period, consciously meshed or “cohered” legal and extrajudicial efforts to gain recognition of their sovereign political status. Through a mode of agency known as “institutional entrepreneurship,” they utilized the multiplicity of law and exploited resources and opportunities inhering within the state itself, but outside the courts. In the context of ambiguous legal precedent and widespread local challenges to tribal rights, they mobilized latent discourses of federal Indian law that legitimated the sovereign governmental status of tribes. Importantly, they circulated tribal sovereignty discourses well beyond the field of law, but through the authoritative activity and voice of the state, and in doing so, generated a precedent-setting recognition of tribal sovereignty.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Reed College

Publication date: 2005-12-01

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