Goal IX Newsletter

Winter 2000, Volume 6, Number 1

Indians in Law School: Who Are Those Guys! by: Lawrence R. Baca

baca.jpgI am in total disbelief when I look at the numbers of American Indian/Native American law students that law schools report to the American Bar Association. According to the report of the Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession, Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession, American Indians constituted 0.9 percent of the law student population in 1997-98. (See Report at page 2.) The report also notes that American Indians constitute 0.8 percent of the national population. That’s impressive. We go to law school at a rate higher than our percentage of the population. If it weren’t for the fact that American Indians have a 40 percent dropout rate before high school graduation, that law student number might have a little believability.

I want to note at the outset that this is not a criticism of the ABA. These flawed numbers are not the fault of the ABA or the Commission on Minorities. The flawed numbers are the fault of certain students who check the Native American box when they apply to law school even though they are not American Indian. Contributing to the problem are the law schools that do not follow up to make sure that these claims to American Indian heritage have some foundation in reality. Let me also add that this essay is an abbreviated version of a larger work with more "flesh on these bones."

Questionable Ancestors

I assert without equivocation that law school applicants who would not create a false Hispanic, Asian, or Black ancestor will make up an Indian ancestor. I draw this conclusion from life experience—mine and that of other Indians.

In 1969, Vine Deloria, Jr., noted in his monumental work Custer Died For Your Sins, the penchant of non-Indians to claim an Indian ancestor. During my three years as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, it was a rare day when a white person didn’t visit my office and proudly proclaim that he or she was of Indian descent. Deloria went on to note that the majority claimed an Indian grandmother and the Cherokee tribe. He opined that, according to those who visited him claiming Indian ancestry, most tribes must have been all female for the first 300 years after Columbus.

Twenty years later nothing has changed—except the educational stakes are higher now. For those admissions programs that take diversity into account when selecting an entering class, a non-Indian who has falsely checked the American Indian box has defeated the purpose of diversity. And, of course, now that "Native American" is the designation, some people even claim they thought the phrase meant being born in America.

Wanting to be Different

indianquote.jpg (12867 bytes)Let me tell three personal stories that illustrate the problem in actual practice. As a college freshman, I was surprised my first week of school when I saw another Indian in the bookstore at the University of California, San Diego. After knowing each other a short time, we decided that we would ask the school admissions office for a list of all of the Indian students on campus so that we could form an Indian student organization. In 1968 they passed out that kind of information without thinking twice, and we received 35 names with contact information. My friend and I contacted all of them by phone or personal visit. Of the 35, only six were actually American Indians—17 percent. When we asked those who were not Indian why they checked the Indian box, their responses ranged from "Well, I think I might have a great-grandmother who was an Indian," to "I don’t know, I just wanted to be different."

In my first year after graduation from law school, 1976, I received a call from a friend’s father, the vice-superintendent of schools in a large Southern California school district. He told me that when he reviewed the faculty information required to be filed with the Department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW), he discovered 22 new American Indian faculty members in a school district that only hired five new teachers the year before. He suspected that they had provided false information because they feared the district would have to layoff some teachers and if they were minority, they would be protected. He wanted to know if lying on the HEW form was against the law and what he should do about it.

I suggested he tell the teachers that because of the special relationship between Indians and the United States, each of the "new Indians" should provide him with a diagram of their family tree showing the Indian ancestors and naming their tribes. When he got the results he called the "Indians" to a meeting and informed them that many were cousins and, according to their diagrams, a few were brothers and sisters. The vice-superintendent told me several claimed a relationship to Cochise (made famous by a television series) but placed him with three different tribes. And, as Vine Deloria had discovered a decade earlier, most of the "new Indians" were Cherokee.

A final observation: I do not know any American Indian professional who has not been approached at a social function by someone who looked white but claimed to have Indian ancestry. The conversation usually goes something like this: "That’s a nice turquoise ring. Are you Indian? I’ve got some Indian in me. My grandmother was part-Cherokee!" Conversely, I have polled my professional friends who are Asian, Black, or Hispanic and none have ever had a person who looked white walk up and say, "Oh, ahh you’re Black right? You know I’m part-Black. My great grandmother was a Wazuri Princess."

People falsely check the Native American box for different reasons. First, there is the mystique of being "part Indian"—Deloria called it a necessity to have a tie to primitive America. Second, this is a response of the majority population to a belief that minority law school applicants gain an undeserved benefit due to affirmative action. Law school applicants who have never held themselves out to be Indian check the Native American box without fear of reprisal from the law school or from the Indian community. I’m sure that the thinking is that for the law school to take action, it would have to admit that race was a consideration in the admissions process, and today that is unlikely to happen.

How many law students really are Indian? We don’t know. How law schools can or should address this issue is for another discussion. But two things are true. Many Native American law school applicants may be missing out on an opportunity to attend law school where a non-Indian falsely checked the Native American box. And, those who knowingly falsely check the wrong box have committed their first ethical violation.

Lawrence R. Baca is Pawnee and president of the National Native American Bar Association

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