Michigan Indian Legal Services (MILS) was created to address the unmet legal needs documented in a study conducted by the Michigan Governor’s Commission on Indian Affairs in the early 1970s. 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. The core of MILS’s mission from its founding in 1975 is to provide quality legal assistance to Indian communities throughout the State of Michigan.
In the Legal Services Corporation Act, Congress ordered the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to study whether there were populations that had special difficulties of access to legal services or special legal problems. In its report, LSC concluded that Native Americans had both special difficulties of access to legal services and special legal problems that were not being met. MILS’s primary purpose is to address these concerns.
First, MILS devotes the bulk of our resources to tribal court representation and providing services to individuals with tribal or federal Indian law related legal issues. MILS attorneys specialize in the area of federal Indian law and tribal law, which are narrow fields with few Michigan practitioners. There are 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan, all with their own separate sets of laws and judicial systems. Our staff members are admitted to practice in all 12 of the tribal court systems. MILS's focus is providing assistance for Indian law cases. In some of the areas where the tribal headquarters are located, the tribes are the largest employers and have substantial economic programs. As a result, there are non-Natives who also have tribal legal issues (e.g., tribal wages being garnished through the tribal courts, custody disputes in the tribal courts). Occasionally non-natives received help with those tribal or federal Indian law issues. In 2017, most of the hours of legal assistance were provided in tribal court litigation to defendants that would have been without representation except for MILS attorneys (including child welfare, juvenile delinquency, eviction, and criminal defense cases).
Second, our priorities include providing representation in cases that have the potential for generational impact, especially in areas where representation will help the American Indian population deal with its disproportionate poverty. Our priories include providing extended service representation in a number of non-tribal or federal Indian law issues for this reason (e.g., driver's license restoration, expungement, school discipline cases). Our services are tailored to the Native American communities (12 tribes and urban centers) and our service area is the entire 96,720 square miles of Michigan. In a 1990 report, the Michigan Department of Social Services Native American Task Force found that 49% of all American Indian households in the state had incomes near or below the poverty level compared to 11.3% of the total population. In 2019, the Kaiser Family Foundation puts the poverty rate among Native Americans in Michigan at 21.9% versus 13.1 across the state. See https://www.kff.org/statecategory/demographics-andtheeconomy/people-in-poverty/ In 2020, the American Community Survey’s estimated that there were 48,419 individuals who only identified as Native American in Michigan, of which 21.3% were living below poverty. It also estimated that there were 148,080 Native Americans of mixed race. The 2020 Census found that there were 61,261 individuals that only identified as Native American and 243,833 who identified as mixed racial (up to 3 races). If the percentage from the American Community Survey is applied to the census number, there are about 51,936 Native Americans living below the poverty line in Michigan. MILS has been very successful in helping clients (tribes, organizations, and individuals) find ways to alleviate poverty through legal representation.
Third, we are also a resource to individuals in the native communities with general legal issues when other free resources are not available. We run a hotline services and provide up to limited action level of assistance in any number of areas of law. If we are unable to provide sufficient help, we make appropriate referrals.
We also contract with the tribes in Michigan to provide additional services for their members that they have identified as needed.