American Bar Association features panel of prominent Native women lawyers

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The American Bar Association hosted a panel of prominent Native American women to talk about how they became lawyers. (Courtesy ABA)

Whether it’s decades of litigation in the Katie John subsistence rights battles or enacting the Indian Child Welfare Act, Indigenous issues have a never-ending need for lawyers. But there is a shortage of Native Americans in the profession, particularly women.

As part of Native American Heritage Month, the American Bar Association recently asked a group of Native women to talk about how they became both lawyers and trailblazers.

The panel included U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, former Alaska Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson and other Native women who have made their mark in the legal world.

Deb Haaland
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (From U.S. Interior Department)

At the age of 28, Haaland was a single mom, who worked to put herself through law school and occasionally had to turn to food stamps. 

When she addressed the panel, she acknowledged their personal sacrifices and said there is a lot to celebrate about the inroads Native women lawyers have made. But she also said there are many challenges ahead.

“We cannot honor these accomplishments in a vacuum,” Haaland said, as she called attention to what she described as “sober reminders,” such as the ongoing marginalization of Native Americans and the chronic neglect of missing, murdered and Indigenous people.

“The MMIP crisis will take the brilliance of legal minds like yours to overcome the jurisdictional challenges that make it difficult to address,” Haaland said.  

The women on the panel said they were motivated to go to law school by a strong desire to serve their community — as well as encouragement from their elders, especially aunties and grandmas. They said as they pursued their education, this support became even more important. They discovered it could be lonely being the only Native at their law school, or later in private practice. They also said it helped them to reach out to Natives outside their tribe to find community.   

With lawyers needed to champion tribal courts, land rights and the implementation of the ICWA, the attorneys said they found plenty of opportunity to hone their legal skills.

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Valerie Davidson, formerly Alaska’s lieutenant governor under Bill Walker, is now president and CEO of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. (Courtesy ANTHC)

Long before Valerie Davidson served as Alaska’s lieutenant governor, she saw the law as a powerful political tool.

Davidson, a Yup’ik from Southwest Alaska, said she began to take an interest in law when she worked as a legislative aide to put herself through college. It was then she realized that lobbyists armed with law degrees had a lot of success in changing government policy.  

“One of the things I did very intentionally was refuse every offer to become a prosecutor,” Davidson said. “My response was really direct: ‘No thanks. You’re doing a great job of putting our people in jail. You don’t need our help to do that more effectively. You’re doing just fine on your own.’”   

Davidson, who has also served as a state health commissioner and a university president, is now president and CEO of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She says a law degree gave her a seat at the table as both a decision-maker and a game-changer.

“Not only being at the table, but designing a different table that is more inclusive in setting up a level of expectation and upping everybody’s game,” she said.

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Stacy Leeds is the first Native American woman to serve as a law school dean. (Courtesy ABA)

Stacy Leeds, a Cherokee, became the first Native American woman to serve as a law school dean. She says there’s room for Native expertise in so many facets of today’s legal practice.  

Leeds, who is a dean at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, says she constantly fights against the perception that the finest days for Native Americans are over.

“And that’s the complete opposite,” Leeds said. “Most of our tribes are undergoing a pretty profound renaissance in language, arts and culture.”

Leeds believes tribal justice is part of that renaissance.  

Abby Abinanti, a Tribal court chief for the Yurok Tribe in California, says tribal courts have the ability to work with people at a more personal, family level. One of the main differences, she says, is that tribes see justice through a cultural lens — while the state court system focuses on individual rights.

“We were a responsibility-based culture. And that’s a different value system,” Abinanti said. “Our practices should look different from their practices, because we are different.”     

Abinanti says that difference can lead to a more diverse legal system for the country. She says tribal courts regularly introduce new concepts — such as a program her tribe developed, a self-referral system, to give those at risk a chance to ask for help before they get into trouble with the law.

While the panelists agree that tribal courts have a lot to offer, they say they are a long way from getting the respect and appreciation they deserve.

Kimberly Teehee, a Cherokee, served as a senior policy advisor to President Barack Obama on Native American affairs. She called on the American Bar Association to help “lift the veil of mystery” about the Native American tribal experience.

Both Teehee and Leeds say that tribal courts need to become more integrated with their counter parts in the state and federal system, which could use more Native judges, especially in the higher courts.

“The number one thing the ABA can do is learn that we live in an America that has three sovereigns,” said Leeds, who hopes that someday, when the words “federal and state” are spoken, the word “tribal” rolls off the tongue with the same ease.  

Valerie Davidson says when drafting legislation and government policy, tribal inclusion can be as simple as picking up a pen. 

“Actually, a Sharpie would do,” she said. “Add a comma and the word, ‘Tribes and tribal organizations.’ You will do more to advance our efforts than you would imagine.”

The ABA panel discussion was on Nov. 2. The panel was moderated by Makalika Naholowa’a, president of the National Native American Bar Association. She is also executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. 

The ABA’s recording of the panel can be seen here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately said that Stacy Leeds is a dean at the University of Arizona, not Arizona State University.

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