Head of the Class: Tracing Her Roots: One Woman's Journey Back Home

Vol. 42 No. 4

By

Melanie Ghaw is a New Jersey-based writer and lawyer.

Ashley Ray is a passionate advocate for Native American communities. As a 3L at the University of Idaho College of Law, she lives between two Native American reservations. “As an African-American and Native American woman, I have personally experienced prejudice and social inequality,” she said. “I want to use my legal experience, education, and knowledge to serve my communities and further equality.”  

As a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, she developed a passion for advocating for underserved communities. While being raised in Florida, her family fostered a connection to her roots with regular trips to Oklahoma, where her parents were raised. She was introduced to native law during an intensive, highly selective pre-law summer institute that prepares Native American students for law school. With that background, she set herself on the path to represent such communities.  

In pursuing her goal, Ray works in the Tribal Prosecutors Office at the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, drafting and revising the sex offense section of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Code. “I am working closely with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to ensure the tribe is in federal compliance with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), which is implemented by the Department of Justice.” Ray recently worked as a guardian ad litem and prosecutor for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. 

In addition to her current work, Ray worked at the Confederated Tribe of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Mission, Oregon. As part of a larger effort to increase estate planning among the tribal population, Ray drafted wills and offered estate planning services. There, she had the opportunity to address the issue of fractionation. According to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, fractionation occurs when a land-owning tribe member dies and the ownership interest is divided among the heirs. However, the land itself is not physically divided. Without a thoughtful estate plan, each heir receives an undivided interest. As each generation passes on, the amount of owners grows. Today, large amounts of tribal land are held by highly fractionated ownership. 

Ray was trained to counsel tribal members on estate planning options to reduce or avoid fractionation. While working on the reservation, Ray drafted and executed 16 wills. Fourteen of those wills minimize the potential for fractionation.

“Estate planning is significant in the Native community because it allows Indian people the opportunity to make informed decisions about their property and assets. Proper Indian estate planning not only keeps land in trust status, but it also promotes Indian ownership while avoiding further fractionation. Estate planning is also a way to help families accumulate wealth.”

In spite of Ray’s achievements, her journey through law school has not been easy. She was frequently homesick following her relocation from Florida. However, a phone call from her great aunt served as a powerful reminder of the importance of her opportunity. “She reminded me of my roots and how some of the women in our family did not have an opportunity to attend college, let alone, law school.” 

Today, as Ray continues her mission to serve the Native American community, she keeps her future goals close to heart. “I would like to continue my work for my tribe, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. It has always been my dream to work for my tribe in a legal capacity, and I hope to fulfill that dream one day.”

Ashley After Class

Favorite Law School Class: Critical Legal Studies

Leadership Role Model: My mentor, Professor Angelique EagleWoman, and my mother

Favorite sports team: Florida Gators 

Favorite food: Macaroni and cheese

Country you most want to visit: Egypt

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