Michigan Indian Legal Services (MILS) was founded in 1975 to address the unmet legal needs of Native American communities. In the early 1970s, a study from the Michigan Governor's Commission on Indian Affairs documented these needs. The study found “[t]here are not enough attorneys available to Michigan Indians; when available, they are frequently unable to specialize in Indian rights cases because these are not fee-producing in nature; day to day criminal and civil cases are difficult to coordinate without funds to hire good legal help.” See Annual Report of the Commission on Indian Affairs, 1975. MILS’s mission has always been to provide quality legal aid to Indian communities in Michigan. At first, MILS’ focus was on helping tribes in Michigan regain federal recognition. Success in federal recognition efforts produced increased economic, educational and health care opportunities for tribal members. Many tribes in Michigan have since gained federal recognition and achieved economic self-sufficiency. MILS’s focus has shifted due to these successes. Instead of tribal governance development, MILS now focuses on the representation of individuals.
Native American communities are the most impoverished group in the United States. Because of this, these communities face unmet legal needs. In 1979, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) addressed this issue in a report to Congress. The report found that Native American communities face many barriers to accessing justice. These barriers arise from distance to legal services, historic distrust of legal institutions, ethnic and cultural differences, and the distinct and complex nature of their legal needs. Their legal needs often involve complicated questions of jurisdiction. They can also involve treaty rights and Indian status under federal laws. They may entail legal engagement with various governmental agencies and courts. LSC's report recognized the need for specialized programs focused on tribal and federal Indian law. 1007(h) Study (1979); Kickingbird & Sepulvado, American Indians and Legal Services: 1966-1988 (1988); Dahlstrom & Barnhouse, Legal Needs & Services in Indian Country (1998); National Association of Indian Legal Services, Legal Needs & Services in Indian Country; NAILS update to Dahlstrom-Barnhouse's 1998 Report to the LSC (2008).
Michigan is home to the Three Fires Confederacy, the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Bodewadomi Nations. There are 12 tribes in the state recognized by the federal government. Additionally, there are several federally unrecognized tribes in Michigan. There are also many Native American communities in the urban areas in the state. Michigan’s entire population includes members of almost every tribe in the Nation. It also includes many Canadian-born Native Americans.
The 2020 Census counted 61,261 Native Americans (single race) in Michigan. It also found 243,833 individuals in the state who identified as mixed race Native American. The 2021 American Community Survey (ACS) included single race and mixed race identities. It estimated that 152,454 out of the 10,050,811 people living in Michigan are American Indians. The ACS also estimated that 27.6% of Native Americans in Michigan were living at or below 125% of the poverty line. This is in contrast to the general state population rate of 16.9%.
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