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October 01, 2014

Judge Stacy Leeds

by Jerry Gardner

Stacy Leeds, a proud citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, made history when she was named the dean of the University of Arkansas Law School in 2011. She is the first Native American woman to be appointed dean of a law school, is currently the only Native American law school dean in the United States, and is only the third Native American law school dean ever. Throughout her distinguished legal career, Leeds has worked tirelessly for Native American, academic, and legal communities, often serving as a bridge to unite and advance the common goals of public service, good governance, and innovative approaches.

As a nationally recognized scholar, judge, and administrator, Leeds brought her innovative approach to her work at the University of Arkansas, where she also teaches property and American Indian law. Arkansas has begun the Indigenous Food and Agricultural Initiative under Leeds’ guidance. This initiative is the first of its kind and furthers multidisciplinary research, service, and education opportunities for its law students while appropriately interacting with Native governance and striving to be a resource for Native farmers, Native youth, and Native governments.

Leeds grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where she was an allstate basketball player for Muskogee High School. She began her higher education at Washington University, where she earned a B.A. while also participating as a student athlete playing basketball and tennis. She also earned an M.B.A. at the University of Tennessee and holds two law degrees—her Master of Laws degree from the University of Wisconsin and her Juris Doctor from the University of Tulsa. While no longer an award-winning student athlete, Leeds continues to excel as both a “trail blazer” and a “juggler” of many roles.

Leeds began her career as a legal educator at the University of Wisconsin School of Law, where she served as a William H. Hastie Fellow. She then served as a professor and director of the Northern Plains Indian Law Center at the University of North Dakota School of Law. Leeds later served as the director of the Tribal Law and Government Center at the University of Kansas, where she received the Howard M. and Susan Immel Award for Teaching Excellence. Leeds was awarded the prestigious Fletcher Fellowship to support her work on tribal sovereignty and citizenship issues while serving as a nonresident fellow of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University.

Leeds has focused her teaching and extensive research on property, natural resources, and American Indian law. As a scholar, Leeds has published more than 20 articles, essays, and book chapters including the 2013 book Mastering American Indian Law, with Professor Angelique Townsend EagleWoman of the University of Idaho College of Law.

Leeds has also made a substantial impact in the Native legal community. She served as a justice for the Cherokee Nation’s Supreme Court, where she was the first woman and youngest person to be appointed. Leeds has also served as a judge for six other Native nations, as a member of the Board of Directors of the National American Indian Court Judges Association, and as chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Judicial Division’s Tribal Courts Council.

Leeds has served in a variety of other tribal administrative roles. From 2011–13, Leeds served on the National Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform, which conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the U.S. Department of Interior’s management and administration of nearly $4 billion in American Indian trust assets and published recommendations for systematic reform. Leeds ran a very strong race for principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 2007. She is currently serving a three-year term as chair of the Cherokee Nation Gaming Commission.

When reflecting in 2008 on the 40 years since the 1968 enactment of the Indian Civil Rights Act, Leeds said, “If there’s a lesson to be learned and employed in the next 40 years, I think it’s simple: We need to spend less energy concerning ourselves with outside legitimacy and, instead, concentrate the bulk of our energy internally.” Moreover, she indicated that “[i]t’s when Indian people get together and think deeply about the issues in our communities we always find our solutions from within. We have to work hard sometimes to listen to ourselves, but the knowledge is there.”

Leeds is an elected member of the American Law Institute. In 2013, she was the recipient of both the ABA’s Spirit of Excellence Award and the National American Indian Court Judges Association’s Annual Outstanding Service Award.

Leeds views her work as a dean at a major research institution as significant in breaking down barriers for tribal communities. “It’s important that we have visible leaders in many fields and disciplines.” She is mindful of her role as a mentor and leader. “I’m aware that young women are watching me,” she says, but adds that she does not let that affect her decisions. Responding to a question about her experiences with gender issues in courtrooms, she commented, “I think there is a distinct difference. However, I can tell you that I’ve experienced things in boardrooms and courtrooms that I’ve never experienced in tribal law. From the first day on the tribal courts, we were peers. All the men on the Cherokee Nation Court are raised by Cherokee moms, so maybe that has something to do with it.”

Jerry Gardner

Jerry Gardner is the founding executive director of the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, a Native owned and operated non-profit that delivers education, research, training, and technical assistance programs to promote the enhancement of justice in Indian country.