New Faculty: Gregory Ablavsky, Assistant Professor of Law

New Faculty: Gregory Ablavsky
Left to right: Assistant Professor of Law Gregory Ablavsky, Professor of Law Alan O. Sykes, and Assistant Professor of Law Rabia Belt (Photo by Max Aguilera-Hellweg)

When Greg Ablavsky was a fifth-grade teacher on the Zuni reservation in New Mexico, he hoped to learn about the community’s rich history and the people living there. “Life on the reservation was both very familiar and different. I would run into students at the local Walmart on the weekends. They watched satellite television and listened to rap music— they were typical kids,” he says. “But then there were moments when I’d become aware that I was living in a culture that had very deep roots and that my students and my colleagues and friends in the community often had very different cultural backgrounds from me.” He recalls seeing his students outside the  classroom at tribal events. “The same students who couldn’t be still for five minutes in class would sit transfixed for three, four, five hours watching dances and ceremonies.”

Ablavsky had just completed his BA studies in American history at Yale College and was keen to do more than study—he wanted to experience some of what he had read, particularly about Native Americans.

“Growing up in New England, I was vaguely aware that there were Native nations still living nearby, but this was not present in the way it is in the West,” he says. So rather than heading straight to graduate school to prepare for an academic career, Ablavsky signed up with Teach For America, requesting an assignment on a Native American reservation out West.

“When you study early American history, it’s hard to escape the presence of Native people. But it’s also significant that they drop out of the historical narrative. Going to New Mexico allowed me to explore the present-day reality,” he says.

Ablavsky had planned to follow “the straight history track” after teaching, but while pursuing his PhD at Penn, he decided to add law. “I wanted something that allowed me to pursue the academic interest that I had—the desire to delve into sources and do the serious work of a historian—while also speaking to some contemporary legal issues that I knew were and are so pressing,” he says.

His passion for history is an active one; he will search far and wide to uncover long-forgotten secrets from the past. Focusing on issues of sovereignty, territory, and property in the early American West, his research can be challenging because federal record keeping was inconsistent in the early years, so much so that he often must travel to obscure regional archives scattered throughout the Midwest and West. He recalls spending countless hours combing through dusty boxes and folders to uncover a letter or clipping for his thesis, “Federal Ground: Sovereignty, Property and the Law in the U.S. Territories, 1783-1803,” which he is currently developing for a book project.

“Some material is online, but going to the physical manuscripts is best. You dig and suddenly you’ll find fascinating, unpublished court cases buried deep in obscure archives. Sometimes, there’s not even a court case, but in a letter you’ll come across a lengthy discussion about a particular incident. It’s often these informal or quasi-formal legal systems that were operating,” he explains. “I found a wealth of material in the Indiana state archives, which are way out on the outskirts of Indianapolis in a strange bureaucratic sort of warehouse, though there wasn’t much discussion of the material online. That happens all the time.”

Unknotting the story of land use in early America is complicated, involving often competing claims by states, the federal government, and Native Americans. “The story I’m trying to tell is how it came to be that a federal land system was created in the late 18th century—and how messy and uneven a process it was,” he says.

Running through this and much of Ablavsky’s scholarship is Native American law. “I knew how important Native history was, but until I went to law school, I didn’t realize how significant Native history was to the construction and interpretation of federal Indian law,” he says. “Native history has been set aside as a specialty, and that’s true for federal Indian law as well. But when you look back at early American history, it’s clear that this was not a minor, marginal area but, in fact, a hugely important focus of governance. The federal government, in particular, spent much of its time in the early years dealing with what was called ‘Indian affairs.’ ”

For his research for “Beyond the Indian Commerce Clause,” a Yale Law Journal article that looks at the evolution of federal assertions of power over Native nations, Ablavsky sat down with George Washington’s presidential papers—noting every mention of Native Americans. The process took weeks but was revealing. “About one in every four documents dealt with Native American issues. So that’s pretty significant,” he says. Highlighting that pivotal relationship is, he notes, crucial to our understanding of both governments.

“I see myself as part of a broader group of historians who are interested in taking Native American history and integrating it more fully into the history of the United States,” he says. “And showing that not only were Native Americans here, not only did they have their own historical trajectory, but in fact the relationships between Native nations and the United States helped shape what we think of as the core of the American narrative, including its political history.”

Adding the lens of law is perhaps Ablavsky’s unique contribution to the field. “I am applying the idea of integrating Native American history to legal history, thinking about the founding documents in a rigorous archival way, and exploring ways in which interactions between the United States and Native nations helped shape the Constitution and the early federal government.” He will teach Federal Indian Law in the spring.